Aira, a platform that helps the visually impaired navigate the physical world using technology and remote human agents, has announced a partnership with Microsoft and Moovit to help blind and low-vision users access public transport more easily.

The announcement comes as technology companies across the spectrum increasingly invest resources to make their products more accessible.

Founded out of San Diego in 2015, Aira serves up a range of services and tools to help those with visual impairments gain greater independence when they leave their home. Through its mobile app, available for Android and iOS, Aira offers human agents who can read road signs or menus by leveraging the user’s smartphone camera. The company also offers dedicated smart glasses with a 120-degree field of vision, which makes it easier for the remote agents to see what the user is seeing in real time.

Up until now, Aira’s remote agents could use Google Maps to help its users navigate cities, but there were some limitations in terms of how this linked in with real-time public transport data, and the agent would often have to use other resources to access the full gamut of information required. That is where the partnership with transit app Moovit and Microsoft comes into play.

Moovit, for the uninitiated, consists of two core elements: a consumer-facing app that helps travelers find the best way to get around a city using multiple modes of transport, and a back-end mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platform that can feed into third-party applications via an API. The API is what Microsoft signed up for as part of a partnership announced by the two companies last year, and that is what Aira and its users will now benefit from.

How it works

Using Microsoft’s Azure Maps, Aira agents can now access full, multimodal transit planning and navigation alongside a real-time view of what their customer is seeing. This means that the agent can not only provide navigational support, they can also confirm that the user is catching the correct bus or using the right subway entrance.

Some of this functionality could kind of be replicated with Aira’s existing navigation integrations, but that often required the agents to look up individual transport-provider websites for all the information they needed. With Azure Maps and Moovit, agents can see real-time arrival alerts, nearby lines and stops, service alerts, stop sequences, and more.

Above: Aira’s agent dashboard

This is a notable evolution for Aria’s service, which aims to provide those with visual impairments seamless access to real-world information. Having to wait around for the next set of instructions, as the agent navigates between various dashboards and websites, is more cumbersome than it needs to be.

“The belief that mobility is a basic human right for everyone is the motivation behind this partnership,” Moovit’s chief growth and marketing officer Yovav Meydad said. “Together, with Aira and Microsoft, we are aiming to make public transit more accessible and inclusive to blind and low vision riders. This will open opportunities for riders to travel more freely and independently, significantly impacting their life.”

Big market

Improving access to technology is a major focus for most of the big tech companies, with Google recently launching a number of new accessibility-focused apps and services to help its users, and Microsoft also working on numerous programs to open up its products to millions more people. Elsewhere, Apple recently moved its Accessibility features front and center in its iOS update.

As the Institute on Disability noted in a 2011 report: “If people with disabilities were a formally recognized minority group, at 19% of the population, they would be the largest minority group in the United States.” Similarly, around 1.3 billion people live with some form of visual impairment globally, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

If nothing else, this highlights a simple fact that disabilities represent a lucrative market, and if companies want all consumers to use their products they need to make them, well, more usable.

“In Azure Maps, we invested significant time and resources to define accessibility requirements, implementing capabilities for those with needs and pushing ourselves to service this segment of users,” added Azure Maps head Chris Pendleton.