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Starting this spring, Smithsonian visitors who are blind or have low vision can access a groundbreaking technology that uses their smartphone cameras or special glasses to get free on-demand verbal descriptions of everything from individual objects to entire exhibitions from sighted agents. The Aira technology is available at all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and the National Zoo. The new service is provided by Access Smithsonian, which oversees accessibility and inclusion activities for Smithsonian visitors.
“For far too long, museum visitors with vision loss have depended on accompanying friends and family to help them navigate around museums,” said Beth Ziebarth, director of Access Smithsonian. “Now, with the touch of a button, visitors have instant access that not only helps them engage with the museum but also increases their mobility and independence. In the words of one recent user, ‘This revolutionizes the way people with vision loss experience museums.’”
Visitors can access Aira in two ways: by downloading the app to their iPhone or Android smartphone or by using their personal Aira smart glasses—at no cost to the user. In both cases, through artificial intelligence and augmented reality, visitors will be connected to highly trained sighted live agents who can see from their remote location what is in front of or near the user. The agent then helps the visitor navigate the museum.
For instance, in the National Museum of American History, live agents can guide visitors to specific objects, such as the Ruby Slippers; specific exhibitions, such as “The First Ladies” and the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery; as well as restrooms, cafés and museum stores. Ongoing services and materials for visitors who are blind or have low vision will continue to be available, including Braille and large-print brochures and docent-led verbal-description tours. In addition, talking tactile floor plans will soon be installed in the National Museum of American History.
About Access Smithsonian
Established in 1991, Access Smithsonian believes the Smithsonian’s exhibitions, programming and content should be inclusive, integrated, independent and dignified. The office is charged with ensuring that all visitors, including people with disabilities, are able to benefit from and have access to what the Smithsonian offers in its buildings, collections and programs. Through collaborations with Smithsonian museums, Access Smithsonian improves access to existing resources and helps design new programs, exhibits and buildings that are accessible to all. Signature programs include Morning at the Museum, designed for youth with sensory-processing disorders and other brain-based disabilities; See Me, for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers; and Project SEARCH, a 10-month internship-to-job training program for young adults with intellectual disabilities. For information, visit www.si.edu/visit/VisitorsWithDisabilities.
AI stands for Artificial Intelligence; RA stands for Remote Assistance. When you put them together, you get Aira. Aira is a service that connects people who are blind or have low vision to highly trained, remotely located agents. At the touch of a button, Aira delivers instant access to information, enhancing everyday efficiency, engagement and independence.
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