Eyes to see

Low-vision technology allow for the seeing impaired to have access to Houston venues

Houston First Corp. will sponsor the Aira technology at several venues across the city so that the blind and vision impaired can enjoy each area. Photo by Micahl Wycoff

A partnership between the Houston First Corporation and Aira, an app that helps blind and low-vision people gain independence by navigating tasks and public spaces, is now live at venues around the city.

Houston First will cover the costs of use for the app in its venues, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, Avenida Houston, Wortham Theater Center, and Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. The organization has plans to expand to the Miller Outdoor Theatre, said John Gonzalez, senior vice president of operations and general manager for Houston First.

"Technology is changing the experiences users have at our events," Gonzalez said. "We want to make our venues as accessible as possible."

California-based Aira's role in offering a vessel for facilities to be more accessible to low-vision and blind Houstonians is groundbreaking, said Vince Morvillo, an account executive with Aira who is blind.

"This technology is as important to a blind person as it is to a sighted person," Morvillo said. "You, as a person with sight, have the opportunity to look, to see things, to interact with people. When you're blind, you're not out and about; you don't have too many people to interact with. The ability to be able to go and do something when you choose to do so is really important."

The app essentially creates sight on demand. Users can use the Aira app on their smartphones and be connected to a trained operator, who will help them navigate the scene around them using video being fed to the app through their phone. The operators will then guide the user to their destination or even help them with everyday necessities like grocery shopping.

"The blind world needs this," Morvillo said. "This technology gets blind people out in the world. Businesses know how successful they are by how many people support them. I just don't understand why blind people are an untapped resource. Nobody's out there trying to get the blind shopper."

In addition to the blind population, Morvillo says that this will also help the aging population, who may often struggle with their vision later in life, and will increase accessibility options around the city.

Aira and Houston First's efforts to increase accessibility for patrons are now being recognized nationally. The National Federation of the Blind recently announced it would be bringing its annual convention to Houston in 2020.

"We are thrilled to host the group and are committed to providing a safe and enjoyable experience for all visitors," Houston First said in an email to InnovationMap. "It is our goal that Houston First venues provide an entertaining and immersive experience for all guests, and our partnership with Aira puts us one step closer to achieving that goal."

The University of Houston is $50 million richer thanks to an anonymous donor. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

On the heels of its $1 billion fundraising campaign and a first look at its new medical school, the University of Houston announced the single largest gift in its history.

The $50 million donation was donated anonymously. The donor is said to be a CEO and a veteran with a history of giving back.

The gift challenges the university to raise $50 million to match it. It will be used for endowed professorships, specifically aimed at attracting top teaching talent to the university.

Chancellor Renu Khator called the gift transformational, and said it will allow the university to become globally competitive by attracting outstanding faculty.

The billion-dollar fundraising campaign will be concentrated in energy, medicine, and global engagement programs.

UH Regent Tillman Fertitta said he met the mystery donor.

"He's smart to remain anonymous," Fertitta said. "He can walk out of the door without strangers saying they have a project for him to consider."

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