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Dayton Daily News (Ohio)


Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith uses Aira technology for the blind and visually impaired to provide game day play-by-play announcing from the suite level for Pete Lane, seated in the stands below.

Pete Lane, who is visually impaired, sits in the stands as Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith uses Aira technology for the blind and visually impaired to provide game day play-by-play announcing.

"Dak (Prescott) throws a little snare out to Zeke (Elliott)," Smith says. Seconds later, the decibel meter in the stadium surged past 100. "Zeke scores a touchdown!" Smith says. "Zeke scores a touchdown!"

Pete Lane sees a small, pixelated figure whenever he thinks of Emmitt Smith.

He sees a short and stout teenager wearing a blue Florida Gators jersey, dashing his way atop a grassy field.

He doesn't see the "E. Smith" of a Dallas Cowboys uniform, or his favorite running back kissing the Vince Lombardi trophy. He doesn't see No. 22 raising his arms after breaking the NFL's all-time rushing record, or anything from Smith's 15-year Hall of Fame career.

That's because Lane is blind.

The 66-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., was diagnosed with macular degeneration at age 8, and ever since, his vision has deteriorated.

In the late 1980s, Lane still had enough sight to watch his beloved Florida Gators. That's when he first saw Smith. On game days, he sat five feet from the TV screen, marveling at the running back. He even attended a few Gator games to cheer Smith on.

By 2000, Lane was blind. Because of his visual impairment, he's relied on physical assistance for day-to-day tasks like reading the mail, grocery shopping or navigating an airport.

Until December 2016.

That's when Lane started using Aira, a new technology for the blind and visually impaired. By wearing a pair of smart glasses equipped with a video camera, Lane can connect and communicate with an Aira agent via phone, who sees what Lane is seeing through a computer screen.

Aira partners with AT&T. And last Sunday, for a special trial, Lane and his son, Patrick, were invited to attend the Dallas Cowboys home game against the Los Angeles Rams.

They were chauffeured to AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Jerry Jones' personal bus and enjoyed pregame on-field access. But the real treat was sitting in the stands, 20 rows behind the 45-yard line, while an Aira agent narrated a portion of the game to Lane.

And not just any agent.

Minutes into the second quarter, with the score tied 3-3, Lane plugged in his ear buds and opened the Aira app.

"Hey Pete, can you hear me?" a voice said.

Lane smiled, and confirmed who was speaking.

"Yes, this is Emmitt," Smith said, sitting high above in the suite level, a laptop on his knees, now watching the game through Lane's perspective.

Lane was honored.

"The pleasure is all mine, my man," Smith said. "Now, tell that kid in front of you with the spiky hair to sit down."

New independence

Aira was first created three years ago in San Diego.

The inventors, Suman Kanuganti and Yuja Chang, were inspired by a blind friend. Together, they searched for ways to provide instant access to information for the blind and visually impaired.

By wearing smart glasses, or using the camera on a cellular device, a blind or visually impaired person simply needs to tap the Aira app. Within seconds, they are connected with an agent.

Aira became available to the general public six months ago. As of now, there are more than 1,000 users across the country. Plans are monthly and based on minutes. The lowest is $89 per month.

"People use it anywhere - from exploring new neighborhoods, traveling, cooking, education," Kanuganti, 37, said. "People use Aira for reading books to their children."

Lane first learned of Aira when he interviewed Kanuganti on his podcast, Blind Abilities. He was so intrigued by the technology that he told his son, Patrick, to check it out. Patrick, who is not visually impaired, promptly got a job with Aira.

Since being involved with the organization, he's noticed a change in his father, who is no longer waiting for assistance when he needs to set the thermostat, navigate a hotel or go on walks.

"Now, he wants to go out and try all these different things on his own," Patrick Lane, 31, said.

Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, supports the new technology, explaining that it simply allows for more independence.

"If I want to look at a manual to put something together from IKEA, I can do it at the time I want to do it. I don't have to get a member of my family to help," Riccobono, 41, said. "It's more about being able to get access to information when I need it without inconveniencing others."

'I've got to be his eyes'

Emmitt Smith had never done this before. He wondered the extent of Lane's football knowledge, and how he became such a fan.

"I'm sure he hears the game, and what's happening," Smith said. "Now, I've got to be his eyes. Which is kind of cool."

Minutes into the second quarter - with cheers and whistles and the booming voice of a PA announcer echoing through the stadium - Smith tried to do just that.

"It's third and seven right now," he said, raising his voice so Lane could hear. "We have the ball at the 10-yard line. We have a chance to get a first down here. Jason Wit-ten is at the bottom of the screen. Dez (Bryant) is in the slot, in the middle."

Lane, sitting in the stands, visualized the play as if he were behind the quarterback.

"Dak (Prescott) throws a little snare out to Zeke (Elliott)," Smith said. Seconds later, the decibel meter in the stadium surged past 100.

"Zeke scores a touchdown!" Smith said. "Zeke scores a touchdown!

Lane shot his fist in the air.

"Great run by Zeke," Smith said. "Made the guy miss. Got hit at about the 4-yard line and then dove for the pylon. That's what you do when you have an asset like Zeke."

Smith dissected every play for Lane during the second quarter, even describing what the stadium looked like.

At halftime, Lane left his seats near the field and made his way to Smith, using a cane and Patrick as assistance.

When he arrived at the suite, Smith was excited to see what Lane was wearing.

"I see you with a Gator hat on, Pete!" Smith said.

Lane smiled, and held out his hand. Smith grabbed it and guided Lane to a photo opportunity.

Just by being close with him, Lane could tell Smith is in great shape. Lane still has a touch of peripheral vision, so he turned his head to the side and glanced at Smith's silhouette.

They talked football, including the rushing record.

"It's 18-something," Lane said. "Eighteen thousand, three hundred and ... "

"Three hundred and 55," said the smiling, 48-year-old retired running back wearing a button-down shirt and a trimmed goatee.

But that's not what Lane saw.

He was picturing a teenager, wearing a blue Florida Gators jersey, forever dashing his way across a grassy field.

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November 17, 2017


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