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."

Three panelists representing the real estate, banking, and health care industries weighed in on innovation in Houston. Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.