As Nick Cantos slid on a sleek pair of glasses, a voice spoke out to him through his iPhone.
“I see the George Mason statue,” a woman’s voice said. “It looks like a bronze statue, standing tall, with a scroll in his left hand.”
Nearby, Nick’s brothers, Leo and Steven, were also busy putting on their glasses, making adjustments here and there.
The three of them, aged 18, are triplets from Arlington, Virginia, who are completely blind. And the glasses they have on are no ordinary spectacles. They are glasses from Aira, a San Diego-based company that has developed smart glasses to help the blind and visually impaired with everyday tasks. The glasses are equipped with a camera, which feeds a video stream to a remote agent who then narrates what they see in real time over the phone for the user.
The woman speaking to Nick was Erin Cater, one of Aira’s network of about 100 agents across the United States. From about 2,700 miles away in San Diego, she served as Nick’s eyes, describing for him everything that came within the camera’s field of vision.
“It’s like an audio description of life,” Nick said.
‘New level of enhancement’
On a recent warm fall morning, Nick, Leo, and Steven took a tour of George Mason University with their father, Ollie Cantos, and the university’s assistant director of admissions, Lauren Wagner.
The brothers, who were born blind, last month became the first blind triplets to make the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.
They graduated from high school in June and will defer college by a year so they can attend an intensive, six-month training course at the Carroll Center for the Blind, just outside of Boston, to learn the skills needed for independent adult living.
For now, they got a taste of the college campus experience in all its sensory glory. They smelled the autumn leaves, heard the leaf blowers in the distance, felt the energizing bustle of students. And with the Aira glasses, they experienced a slice of daily life at a level of detail they never had before.
As Nick made his way slowly through the heart of campus, he tried to figure out the material he was walking on.
“Is it cobblestone,” he asked Cater, the Aira agent.
Cater told him it was a mix of brick and concrete. Then she went on to describe his surroundings in exact, real-time detail. A student in a blue tank top just walked by, she said. A man pushing a black catering cart of food just crossed in front of him. And a golf cart just drove by on the left.
“A golf cart?” said Nick, incredulous. “Wow.”
Nick paused outside the main student center. To his left, about 12 feet away, stood a large sign, but Cater couldn’t quite make out what it said. So she snapped a photo from the video feed, zoomed in, and read the sign. She told Nick it said “Roger Wilson Plaza.”
All this new information, Nick said, “is a new level of enhancement for me.” He even wants to go on a big hike up a mountain, and get to actually enjoy the scenery – unlike the last hike he went on, which he found pointless and miserable.
Now, he said, he can’t wait to have an agent describe to him the sweeping mountaintop vistas.
Experimenting with technology
Suman Kanuganti was playing around with a pair of Google Glass in 2013 when an idea hit him: What if his friend Matt Brock, who had lost his vision several years before, could put these glasses on, stream video captured through its built-in camera, and use it to see with the help of a seeing person – himself?
Kanuganti dove in, experimenting with the technology. He co-founded Aira in January 2015, began large-scale trials in mid-2016, and officially launched the service in April.
Aira has “hundreds” of users, said Kanuganti, 37, who also serves as the company’s CEO. The service works on a subscription model, with a basic plan costing $89 a month for 100 minutes with a trained agent. The agents, who are mostly contractors, work on an on-demand model like that of Uber, logging on to take users’ calls and being paid for the hours they work.
“They have to learn how to think like eyes, not brains,” Kanuganti said.
The magic in all of this is in the simplicity of the solution, he added: A missing sensory input, sight, is replaced with someone else – the agent.
“They become one,” Kanuganti said.
He shared stories of how the glasses have helped a mother read bedtime stories to her child every night; a user who wanted to assemble Ikea furniture; and a woman who went grocery shopping.
“She literally cried when she picked out her own produce,” he said.
Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, which is an investor in Aira, said the new glasses have the potential to enhance the lives of blind people and to increase their independence, but added it’s important to be realistic in our expectations of how the new technology will address challenges faced by the blind community.
“We’re very cautious with saying that technology like this is going to transform people’s lives,” Danielsen said. “But what it does is it provides another layer of information to which we didn’t have easy access before.”
‘Changing their lives’
Just before lunch, Ollie, 47, had to leave for a work commitment.
“All right sons, I’ll leave you here. Have fun,” he told them. Then he did a double-take as reality sank in. “Wow. I’m leaving you at college.”
Ollie, who is blind, works as an attorney at the Department of Education. He officially adopted the triplets last November, but they have been “like dad and sons since 2010,” he said. It was “priceless” to know that with the new glasses, his sons now had the ability to make independent decisions.
“It’s literally changing their lives,” Ollie said.
The triplets made their way into the food court on the main floor of the crowded student center. It was time to order lunch.
Patrick Lane, Steven’s agent based in Jacksonville, Florida, guided him to the Steak and Shake. As Steven waited in line, Patrick pulled up the menu on his screen.
There was the Original Double ’N Cheese Steakburger ’N Fries for $3.99, the Single Steakburger ’N Fries for $3.29, and the Triple Steakburger ’N Fries for $3.99. Patrick read out other options, too, like the specialty burgers, classic melts and sandwiches.
Steven decided on the Single Steakburger with fries and a Coke. Minutes later, he picked up his food, and joined Leo and Nick at a table.
Over burgers, fries and pizza, the brothers reflected on the morning’s experience of touring George Mason campus with their new glasses.
“It feels kind of strange to have vision,” Leo said. “Things feel a bit easier. ... Social interaction is easier.”
“Now we can tell what people are feeling because we know what they look like. ... Ninety-five percent of social interaction is visual, so you’re basically, with this device, adding that ninety-five percent,” he added.
Nick, meanwhile, was already thinking about all the adventures he’ll go on.
“Now I can do crazier things with my friends because I can see what things look like,” he said.
And Steven, between bites of his burger, mulled a question his brothers were likely pondering, too.
“Is that what having vision is like?” said Steven, wonder-struck by how everyday interactions – such as ordering lunch – suddenly felt so much smoother and easier. “Because things go faster.”