Aira.IO: a Cloud-Connected Wearable Providing Greater Independence for the Blind
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By Suman Kanuganti, Co-founder and CEO of Aira.IO
Aira.IO, based in San Diego and launched in 2014, focuses on developing technology and services that provide blind and low-vision individuals greater mobility and independence. Using wearable smart glass technology, Aira connects the visually impaired in real time (through AWS components) with remote, trained Aira Agents. Agents assist users to perform a myriad of daily activities — ranging from navigating city streets and catching a plane to ordering meals from a restaurant menu.
Inspiration From a Blind Friend
The seeds for starting Aira were planted over a year ago. A computer software engineer named Yuja Chang and I struck up a friendship with a blind communications professional named Matt Brock. The more we became acquainted, the more all three of us began discussing how we could use Google Glass technology to help blind and low-vision people become more mobile and independent.
Those conversations resulted in Yuja (who is now co-founder of Aira and our VP of Product Management) and I working with other members of our Aira team to develop a viable prototype that combined Google Glass with personalized assistance from remote agents. This was the beginning of Aira, which we continued to nurture through the Lean Startup concept, in-depth market/technology research and testing, and best practices.
Larry Bock, the noted serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, was another key addition to the Aira team. I first met Larry last year while demonstrating our product at a Foundation Fighting Blindness event. Larry, who is visually impaired, was enthralled by the potential of the Aira platform. He joined us recently as the Aira Executive Chairman.
How the Platform Works
Our platform used Google Glass and the AWS cloud for rapid development of the first version of our product. Here’s basically how the platform works:
- The Aira platform pairs wearable smart glass devices with a user’s smart phone, which requires data connection from major network providers.
- To connect with an Aira agent, blind or low-vision users simply tap their smart glass, and the Aira platform running in the AWS cloud sends an incoming request to Aira trained agents through an Uber-style routing algorithm.
- Once the incoming request is accepted, on a dashboard the agent will see what the user sees with <1 second latency, while receiving real-time streaming updates to Google Maps, GPS, Street View, object/face recognition, step/distance readings, barrier warnings, machine-learning algorithms, and other data.
Aira’s Platform: What It Means for the Blind
What does this mean for the visually impaired? Aira can open a new world of options for users and help users with common, everyday tasks. For example, an Aira agent can help a user recognize friends, find a seat on a bus, read a menu, and travel the world.
Through the dynamics of the Aira platform, our product and services will also address a pressing socioeconomic problem: enhancing cost savings and productivity associated with the visually impaired. The results can be substantial when you consider that in the U.S. alone there are approximately 20 million blind and low vision people, and the economic loss due to vision problems is estimated at $135 billion annually. Approximately $56 billion of the latter figure represents how much the nation loses in productivity each year due to vision problems related to employment and travel, and money spent on assistive devices and programs.
Isn’t IoT, the Cloud, and Web Tech Awesome?
We augment a real-time context of users and their surroundings. The data streams can be from a number of different Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Our platform does the heavy lifting and manages events, processes video frames, analyzes sensor data, and over time builds a personalized experience through machine learning.
Although our platform provides most of the business logic, we leverage Wowza for real-time streaming and JW Player for playback in real-time.
Let’s look at this more closely with our components in the picture:
- On the user’s end, Google Glass uses libstreaming library and pushes RTSP streams. All of our servers, including Wowza servers, are hosted on AWS EC2 instances. Wowza works great if you are in the IoT space and want to quickly get streaming from any IP camera. It supports multiple transformations between streaming protocols out of the box.
- Our platform runs on Tomcat EC2 instances, and handles the JSON payloads over an HTTPS endpoint.
The platform synchronizes, based on the timestamp of sensor data, with video frames. This synchronization plays a critical role for our agents. This is a key element for our IoT integration. A unique hash identifies the metadata required to indicate where the payload is coming from, delivering a synchronized view of live video and sensor UI elements to the dashboard.
Thanks to connected services and open APIs, our platform integrates and pulls relevant information from Google Maps, Uber, Indoor Maps, Yelp, OpenWeather, NextBus, and several other cloud sources.
All of these elements contribute to building the “surrounding context” of the user. Here is our high level architecture:
Unlike Netflix, where a few seconds of delay is acceptable and caching works really well, in our case any frame that is 5 seconds old is useless to us; we just throw it away. So, we are working further to solve this issue for real-time, smooth streaming in low-latency networks.
Why AWS is Our Obvious Choice
We are all well aware of how AWS set a model example for reaping the benefits of a cloud at a reasonable price. Despite the obvious benefits of EC2 and Auto Scaling, AWS has a lot more to offer. Its SDKs and APIs are mature, and its services are robust, with ample documentation and support.
More important, the list of AWS services is comprehensive. Who doesn’t want all their cloud services managed in one place, resulting in greater economies of scale? Amazon CloudFront makes our dashboard responsive. Amazon Route 53 allows us to choose the best route for low latencies. Wowza EC2 optimized instances, which are readily available on AWS Marketplace, makes scaling of our streaming servers a breeze. Our engineers’ passion for Chef to bootstrap and automate AWS components makes our development lifecycle faster and our operations more efficient. In addition, we appreciate the technical support we receive from AWS when we get blocked, and the advice and reviews from AWS architects. Our deployment architecture is depicted in the following diagram:
Here are just a few other key advantages of AWS that Aira enjoys:
- AWS is a one-stop for not only our infrastructure needs (computing, storage, and load-balancing), but also out-of-the box services such as Identity and Access Management (security), Amazon RDS (databases), API Gateway (API management), and Amazon CloudWatch (monitoring).
- AWS is more than a cloud provider for us. We don’t have to solve the problem of database scaling, and we rely heavily on CloudWatch and Amazon SNS for our monitoring needs.
- AWS is one of the few services that actually advises you about how you can optimize your usage of resources and save money. For example, we got an email about our S3 utilization. We were storing builds in S3 that were not accessed in days. We followed the advice from AWS to use Amazon Glacier for such cases, which saved us money.
In fact, it has been our experience that AWS supports the startup community to a greater extent than other cloud service providers. If you are a startup and are already incubating at an accelerator, we highly recommend that you apply for AWS Activate, or consult your incubation coordinator for further insight on the advantages of AWS.
Aira Moving Forward
We raised our seed financing early this year, and went from prototype to production-ready on AWS within four weeks!
Aira will be available as a monthly subscription model, including the service and device, starting in early 2016 after beta trials for the product are completed this summer.
Looking ahead, Aira also envisions expanding into other healthcare markets (e.g., dementia, autism) that need remote assistance.