By: Jason Law
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
BOSTON – Grocery shopping can be very stressful. Navigating crowded aisles in a store full of people is frustrating, but if you’re blind, like Kim Charlson, then grocery shopping can be almost impossible.
A new tool, however, could revolutionize shopping for people who can’t see.
It’s an app that helps the visually impaired navigate the world and does it using the eyes in your smartphone.
“You come into a grocery store and you’re just bombarded with everything all around you,” Charlson explained. “It’s just not the place a blind person can get around independently without some kind of support.”
She says, though, she now has the support she needs.
Hanging around her neck, using the camera in her iPhone is an operator walking her through the aisles and pointing her to where she needs to go. That operator works for the company Aira, a San Diego-based tech company that helps blind people navigate the world.
This week, Aira launched its free program for Wegmans shoppers.
“Hi, Emily, this is Kim. I’m in Wegmans in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts,” Charlton said into her phone as she demonstrated the app’s functionality for Boston 25 News.
On Wednesday, we followed her as she used Aira to shop for her groceries.
“Does this look like a good batch [of tomatoes]?” she asked her assistant, Emily.
We watched her communicate with the agent to find her everything she needed, including treats for her seeing eye dog, Dolly.
The system is not flawless. At times, Dolly got confused on where they were going. At one point, the Aira agent told Charlson to go to an aisle that didn’t exist — but they eventually found their way together.
Charlson, who has been blind since she was 12 years old, is excited about the possibilities.
“It’s really been an amazing service and something I call a real game-changer,” she said.
Boston 25 News spoke with Amy Bernal, Aira’s Vice President of Customer Experience, about whether there were challenges guiding somebody around using a smartphone camera.
“I would say Aira agents work together with the explorer to move the camera where they need to get the information,” Bernal said. “So think of it as a partnership. It really is an agent and an explorer working together to get the point of view and the information they need to be efficient.”
Aira is a free service at all the Wegmans stores in New England.
The company would like to expand the program into more grocery chains and retailers.