Visitors to the National Museum of American History use the Aira app at the display of a section of the original segregation era F.W. Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, where on Feb.1, 1960, four African-American students sat down at the counter and asked for service. Credit: Richard Strauss

Visiting a museum is an enjoyable experience, but for visitors who are blind or have low vision, it can be a limiting one. But patrons who visit Smithsonian museums now have the opportunity to try innovative technology aimed at providing a new level of access and freedom.

Earlier this week at the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian debuted Aira technology, which is currently available at all Smithsonian museums in D.C., as well as the National Zoo. Through the deployment of specially trained, sighted agents, the technology is utilized with smartphone cameras, or special glasses, to provide on-demand verbal descriptions of the user’s surroundings—from individual objects in museums to whole displays and exhibitions. The sighted agent can then guide the user through the museum. 

“I use Aira very much as a secretary and concierge,” says Daniel Frye, an attorney and Aira’s D.C.-based director of public sector engagement and strategy. “As someone who has an undergraduate degree in 20th century German history and the Civil War in America, these museums are fascinating to me,” says Frye, who is blind.

Now, he says, blind and low-vision museumgoers have the opportunity to use their phone cameras to have someone objectively describe what they are seeing.

“Our agents don’t offer a commentary on what they’re seeing,” he says. “They are taught to think like a pair of eyes, not a brain. They work on the assumption that the blind person has the autonomy and the brain, and they are there to give you the visual information that you can’t otherwise access.”

Visitors can use Aira in two ways. Smartphone users can download the Aira app, which offers a 30-minute free guest trial and a monthly subscription. The Smithsonian, however, has purchased minutes on behalf of the customers—each institution site is a free Aira zone sponsored by the Smithsonian in which patrons can use the app limitlessly, Frye says.  

The other way the technology can be used is through purchasing a personal pair of Aira smart glasses, which come with an Aira-ready phone, used in a similar manner as the app. A one-button press on the phone, which is tethered to the glasses, can connect to an agent.

Aira was founded four years ago, and the technology for individual users was developed within the last two years. “We’re very much a venture capital startup based in La Jolla, California,” says Frye.

At a demonstration on Tuesday, Frye pulls out his phone to demonstrate use of the app: In the app, he places a call to request an agent and reaches an assistant named Shawn, who then successfully and accurately describes Frye’s National Museum of American History surroundings. When the display words are a bit too far away for Shawn to read aloud, he simply asks Frye to angle his phone up and so he can take a photo using Frye’s phone camera and zoom in. 

Access Smithsonian helped bring the technology to the institution, which works to increase accessibility throughout its museums.  “It was a way for people who are blind and have low vision to independently access museums,” says Access Smithsonian director Beth Ziebarth. That kind of autonomy and independent access, Ziebarth says, is what she would want.

“Aira truly can be an empowering and liberating experience, giving those of us who are blind access to things that ordinarily would be denied to us,” Frye adds. “When we have access to that information we’re able to participate as equals in a society that otherwise, sometimes, excludes and disenfranchises us.”