A Conversation with Aira

In the inaugural episode of Hadley Presents, Ricky Enger and Jonathan Mosen of Aira chat about the ways in which a visual interpreter service, such as Aira, can be used to gain valuable visual information and enhance travel and leisure activities for blind and low vision users.

April 5, 2019

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Learn more about Jonathan: Jonathan Mosen serves as Vice President, Australasia, and Explorer Communications for Aira. He has worked in leadership positions at several assistive technology companies including HumanWare and Freedom Scientific. He founded ACB Radio in 1999 and is a prolific Internet radio broadcaster and podcaster. He joined the team at Aira in October 2018.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter to keep up with his latest happenings, and you can also contact him by email at jonathan.mosen@aira.io.

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Audio Transcript


Hadley Presents: Episode 1, A Conversation with Jonathan Mosen of Aira

Presented by Ricky Enger

Welcome to Hadley Presents episode one. I'm your host Ricky Enger inviting you to sit back, relax and enjoy a conversation with the expert. For this episode our conversation centers around using technology to gain access to visual information and our expert is Jonathan Mosen from Aira. Welcome to the show, Jonathan.

Jonathan Mosen: Hi Ricky, it's nice to talk to you and a special honor to be on episode one, so thank you for that.

Ricky Enger: Absolutely. And we'll be super gentle with you because I understand this is your first time ever in front of a microphone, right?

Jonathan Mosen: That's right. I'm very nervous.

Ricky Enger: Yes, quite nervous. That might be a slight bit of an exaggeration, you might've maybe done a couple of other things in front of a microphone. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Jonathan Mosen: Once or twice yes. Well, I have been a podcaster, internet broadcaster for a long time. Recently I just celebrated my 20th anniversary of doing live internet radio which is crazy stuff. I've worked in assistive technology a bit, worked at HumanWare managing blindness products there for three years and then had a long stint at Freedom Scientific and I've also run my own consultancy company called Mosen Consulting. But I joined Aira on White Cane Day last year, October 15th of 2018 and I'm their VP of Explorer Communications and also for Australasia which is Australia and New Zealand.

Ricky Enger: How cool is that? For people who don't know what Aira is, what's kind of the quick elevator pitch as to what the Aira service is?

Jonathan Mosen: Aira connects you 24/7 through smart glasses or a smart phone app with professionally trained agents.

Ricky Enger: There are so many different uses for this and especially the idea that you can be anywhere at any time and essentially 24/7

Ricky Enger: When you heard about Aira, was it a thing that you immediately said I want to try it right now and what was that first experience like?

Jonathan Mosen: When I heard about Aira I was actually doing an interview about it for the podcast that I was running at the time and intellectually I thought this is really interesting. I have worked in technology for a long time and I think what happens to you is you get a little bit immune to technology. Somebody once told me when I first got into this industry that the two things in life you don't want to see being manufactured are sausage and software.

I think that's probably quite right. I thought Aira might be a little bit of hype. And then I went to CSUN last year and they were offering Aira access there which meant that it was available to try for free. All you had to do was download the free app and sign up and then take it for a spin. I thought I would do this and see what happened. Now, one thing I should add here is that I also have a hearing impairment. I wear hearing aids.

I have found, because my hearing loss is degenerative, that over the years I've been starting to withdraw from challenging noisy situations and they don't come more challenging or noisy than CSUN initially especially when you're in the exhibit hall or when you're moving through those really crowded lobbies and the hotel that CSUN used to be at San Diego was pretty cavernous. I thought, well, I'll give it a go. I wasn't expecting a lot.

I called an Aira agent, I had a lot of time because it normally took me a lot of time to do this, and said I want to get to the exhibit hall. The thing about Aira is that when you call them, they not only the video from your camera, that camera could be from Aira's smart glasses if you've purchased them or it could be just from the iOS or android app. But they also augment that information without other things.

On the spatial dashboard software that Aira has written in house, an agent can get map data, they can get your GPS location, they can bring other information up that is related on the web so they have a dashboard full of information that can assist you and they had map data about the hotel on their dashboard and the agent started directing me. I got in late the night before so I couldn't even remember where the elevator was.

I was pretty jet lagged after a 12 hour flight from New Zealand and we got down the elevator and then hearing the agent in my hearing aids, she navigated me through this very, very crowded busy lobby which I would have hated before because the sound was just bouncing everywhere. She gave me some really clear instructions. For example, you're just coming up to a group of people who was standing, talking in the middle of the lobby.

If you move left you will avoid them. And so it was kind of like a mix of kind of the experience you get with working with a guide dog actually where sometimes the guide dog avoids obstacles without you knowing it. We got there to the exhibit hall far far earlier than I had anticipated and the door was still closed. For me the icing on the cake was she said the door is closed in front of you but on your left I can see a counter and it has a sign that says exhibit hall services and there's a man behind that counter and I will get you to him, guide you to him.

At that point, I must confess, that's when I burst into tears ‘cause I've never used a piece of technology before that had made me cry and I just realized this has changed everything for me.

Ricky Enger: For sure. And I think that your story exemplifies kind of a common theme and that is having this as life changing in that for some people. You specifically talked about withdrawing a bit and not wanting to be in really noisy situations because it was difficult for you to navigate in those situations or people who may not feel fully comfortable with travel or people like me who I travel and I kind of feel like, well, I need to have a plan A and plan B for every scenario and how I'm going to figure out what's happening in the world and have a contingency and all of that before I walk out the door.

And sometimes just that is a little bit overwhelming and for some people they just make the decision not to step out. But having access to this very valuable visual information that sighted people can look around and get now you're on equal footing with anyone else and you don't necessarily have to plan in the same way for do I have to have every single thing written down? And what if this happens, then what do I do? You have the ability to kind of function in the world and gain information as it's presented. That to me is wonderful.

Ricky Enger: Have you ever had anything strange or unexpected or just weird happen during an Aira call or something that you expected to happen one way and things went a little differently for you?

Jonathan Mosen: One thing actually is that we recently went to a 50th birthday party and they decided that they would have a kind of like fireworks. That stockpiled fireworks from the last holiday where fireworks were on sale in preparation for this 50th birthday party and it was actually Bonnie who said to me because I've just become used to listening to fireworks displays and enjoying the sounds actually. Bonnie said to me, hey, why don't we call Aira?

It would never have occurred to me actually, I must admit. And so we called Aira and we got this most incredible real time audio description of all the different colors and the sort of shooting stars and different things like that. It was a really telling example for me of the fact that you might use Aira to introduce you to a whole different experience you never thought of doing before.

Ricky Enger: That's it exactly. What about for everyday stuff? I know that for me being a happy Aira explorer I still kind of struggle with remembering that it's there. I'm so accustomed to doing things without a visual interpreter on the other end that it's hard to remember this is in the toolbox. Do you find that was the case for you or did you jump right in and you use it kind of a lot more than you thought you would?

Jonathan Mosen: I used to find that the case absolutely. When I first got Aira I almost saw using it as an admission of defeat in some way. If I dropped some sort of crazy object or couldn't locate it, I would happily sort of grope around and grovel around for 10 or 15 minutes looking for the thing and then I would kind of see it as a surrender. Okay, I'm going to call Aira and see if they can see this and of course within 20 seconds they found the thing.

And then I started to realize, look, my time is just as valuable as anybody else's and this is a new piece of technology. It's not a surrender, it's not an admission of defeat. I think I also had to get over the idea that maybe I was bothering Aira with something trivial because I have sighted children and I'm always respectful of the fact that I'm the parent and if I ping them too match about tasks that I could do myself with a little bit of time and thought, it's kind of undermining that and taking advantage a little bit.

I had that mindset and then I realized, hang on, Aira actually wants me to consume their service. I'm not bothering anybody by calling them, I'm actually doing them a favor by consuming my minutes. It's a very new way to think that actually here is a service that wants me to ask these things. And then I suppose you get onto the philosophical question, well, are we will be becoming a bit soft because of Aira. I have two answers to that.

One is that one thing I've noticed as somebody who does have a hearing impairment and my directionality has suffered a little bit because of it, I noticed that if I do a route with Aira say getting from the elevator on the floor that I land on to my hotel room. If I do that once or twice or three times with Aira and get it right because Aira is going to get me the correctly every time, I find that I build up muscle memory and by the third or fourth time I don't call Aira because it's been committed to memory in such a consistent sequence that I can do it now.

I find that Aira has enhanced my skills. I also think that we talked about how some people withdraw for various reasons. Maybe they haven't unfortunately had access to appropriate rehabilitation training and that's dreadful and we need to keep advocating to fix that. But if they've had a taste of getting out there, thanks to Aira, it lifts the bar. It makes people realize what's possible and I think that can spur people on to perhaps realizing, look, I don't need to be cooped up anymore.

I want to get additional rehab training. I want to do these things. I think Aira is a very positive development. And also I would observe that, look, people have been lamenting the advancement of technology forever since the pocket calculator. That's supposed to have eroded our brains with math skills.

Ricky Enger: I think that's absolutely true and your point about people who use Aira for a task a couple of times and then do it without Aira is a great example of just how this isn't necessarily an erosion of skills using a technology like Aira to accomplish some of these tasks, but rather it can give someone either the confidence to try new things.

Or just if someone is watching you perform a task and giving you information about it, you're going to naturally pick up on things using what you do have and say, oh well I can, for example, use my spoon and tell that the pasta is floating in the pot. I don't need an interpreter to kind of tell me that anymore and I can do this on my own now. I think that it can actually be an increase in independence in some instances.

Jonathan Mosen: Yes I think so. It's taking us a while to understand how this new kind of technology fits into our life, but for me it has really improved my quality of life immeasurably. There are many people out there who have a disability in addition to blindness and that's certainly the case for me and it has just made a tremendous quality of life difference to me.

Ricky Enger: Do you think there are differences beyond just simply not wanting to depend on friends and family to get access to some of this visual information? Are there differences in the kind of information you might get from Aira versus the kind of information that you might get from a friend or a family member?

Jonathan Mosen: Yes, and I think that this is a really important distinction that you might make in terms of getting information from somebody who has not been trained to provide information. This is one of the areas where Aira really shines because all of the agents at Aira have been through, firstly, a 30 day process of training after the initial interview that got them into that training in the first place. And then there's a kind of a vetting process of the end of that. It's pretty rigorous before an Aira agent ever gets on the dashboard.

Some people are better at describing things than others. We know this. You can ask somebody random on the streets or even a family member who should know better about where something is and they'll tell you it's that way. They say, well, with what's over there. That's another of my favorite ones. Aira agents go through extensive training about how to describe something and they are also trained to make sure that they understand that you are the person who is actually in charge.

Sometimes family members can be a little over helpful, a little bossy. Just because they are family members doesn't necessarily mean they've been endowed with this gift to describe things in an objective way. Also I think sometimes family members can be a little impatient from time to time. It kind of puts you in charge and it makes you realize that you're not imposing on anybody by getting this information from Aira.

Ricky Enger: I think it's having kind of this service transaction where you are paying for or you have access to a service and it is meant to be transactional rather than kind of the lines being unclear about, well, I've done this for you so now you owe me things or you don't owe me things. That level of distinction is nice to have as well.

Jonathan Mosen: Yes. I mean, I'm frequently grateful still more than a year on when I use Aira and sometimes I have an experience. One that was quite recent for me, I was checking out of a hotel at 4:00 AM and I went down to the hotel front desk and the lobby was the exact antithesis of the CSUN experience. It was completely silent. There was no sound at all, no music playing even, nothing to guide me to where the front desk was. I'd only been in this hotel sort of overnight so I couldn't remember where the front desk was from the elevator.

The agent guided me to the front desk and then we found that there was nobody there behind the front desk, they were probably taking a nap. And so the agent was able to guide me to where the bell was to press to get some attention. I may well have got there but it would have taken me a lot longer to get those things done and maybe I would have been delayed for my flights or something like that. Frequently things still happen to me where I'm grateful for Aira.

Ricky Enger: Awesome. As we unfortunately come to a close here, let's quickly talk about a few interesting things that may not have previously come up in the conversation about how people are using Aira. A couple from me using Aira to describe clothing from clothing subscription boxes. That's a fun one. Also using Aira to connect to my computer and work with somewhat inaccessible software and just get right past some of those really frustrating bits to get what I want to do actually accomplished.

Jonathan Mosen: Yeah, they're both great examples. I use Aira with computer technology a lot. I was working with a client last year and we had a router pop up in Korean which sadly I don't speak and nor did my screen reader cope with it very well. I would've come to a screeching halt helping that person were it not for the fact that Aira could remote in and help me to configure that router. Computer tasks are really profound.

Ricky Enger: Fantastic. So for people who want to learn more about Aira, where should they go?

Jonathan Mosen: The website is the best place and that's aira.io and there's lots of information there including our audio training. I've put together about six hours of audio training that describes not only how to use the app, which is basic tutorial stuff, but how do you incorporate this into your life? How would your life change thanks to Aira? You don't have to be a current Aira explorer to access that material. It's just available in DAISY, MP3 and online at aira.io/training.

Ricky Enger: Excellent. Well, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us today, and I really appreciate the conversation. It's been wonderful.

Jonathan Mosen: It's been great talking with you Ricky. I don't think we've ever done this before on any podcasts so it's great to talk to you at last.

Ricky Enger: Yeah, we'll have to do it again.

Jonathan Mosen: Yeah, I'd love to.

Ricky Enger: Fantastic. Thanks for joining us.

Got something to say? Share your thoughts about this episode of Hadley Presents or make suggestions for future episodes. We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at podcast@hadley.edu or leave us a message at (847) 784-2870. Thanks for listening.