La Jolla-based company helps legally blind runner finish Boston Marathon

Legally blind marathon runner Erich Manser finished the Boston Marathon April 17 in 5:11:30, using technology developed by La Jolla-based company Aira. The advancement, a wearable device that can help the visually impaired in their daily lives, passed its first test in a competitive run.

“Running a marathon using Aira technology was an extreme test, it’s not what the device is used for. I knew going in that the Boston Marathon has 30,000 runners in it, it’s kind of crowded, so we didn’t have a lot of expectations,” said 44-year-old Manser, adding that he usually uses two human guides for a running event, but in this case, he chose to use only one — “my second guide this year was Aira.”

The technology uses the Google Glass, which incorporates a forward-looking camera and a phone connection to a staff person at a remote location, who can help the visually impaired person navigate everyday life. If the client needs help, he or she wearing the device, calls in, and a staffer directs them on how to move around the room, do their shopping at the grocery store or chose from a restaurant’s menu.

The idea came when Aira’s CEO and co-founder Suman Kanuganti was experimenting with technology in 2015. “I’m a technologist by background, so when the Google Glass came out, there was this idea ... we did an experiment with my friend, who is blind and lives in Colorado. He put the glasses on and instead of talking on the phone, we used Google Hangout so I could see what he was looking at,” he said. “Soon enough, we created some prototypes and got in touch with some blind people in San Diego, who started trying it out.”

Kanuganti said Aira has about 200 customers who pay a flat monthly fee and receive remote assistance from a network of certified agents. “For any activity that a blind person needs to do, he or she can call in, and a person sitting at a desk will see anything that the blind person sees (in real time) and also have info from Google Maps (and other spaces on the Web).”

Him and Aira co-founder Yuja Chang met while they were in an MBA program at UC San Diego. “We were exploring ... what does it mean to provide information technology for blind people? I did a business plan to understand the industry and competitors, and that helped me eventually come up with a plan,” he said.

One of Aira’s first investors was now-deceased biotech entrepreneur Larry Bock, co-founder of San Diego’s gene sequencing company Illumina. Kanuganti said Bock was a big user of their technology in the initial phases, “He did a good start for the company all around.”

Marathon runner Manser also got to know Aira very early on. He works on accessible technology at IBM and was at a conference in Orlando where the company’s technology was being demonstrated. Although legally blind, he still has some vision left, which he describes as “looking through a drinking straw that you cover with wax paper,” and his use of Aira’s services differs from totally blind users.

“I’ve gotten great value from it, especially if I run into a situation where I have to go to a customer location that’s not familiar or when I’m running late. Once, I didn’t know exactly where I was going and Jessica (one of Aira’s staff) pulled me out of a big wait for an appointment,” he explained.

Another service helpful for Manser, he said, is their recently incorporated option to call a rideshare service. “There are somethings, for someone like me, that makes this difficult; like I’m not going to be able to tell the color of the rideshare car or the license plate, which is the information they give you. So I just have them call for me, and all I have to do is stand on the sidewalk and wait until they tell me it’s here.”

For Kanuganti, a San Diego native, having their center of operations in La Jolla has been an advantage. “I have all things that I need here, there’s a good number of technology startups, but not as overwhelming as Silicon Valley. I’d like to think San Diego is an extension of Silicon Valley,” he said.

Learn more at aira.io

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