He’s not running blind: Wearable tech will help Boston Marathon contestant reach the finish line

Blind Boston Marathon runner Erich Manser

When he crosses the starting line of the 121st Boston Marathon on Monday, blind runner Erich Manser will be accompanied by two assistants – one immediately to his left and another 800 miles away in Ohio.

Manser (pictured) is the first marathon runner to test a new adaptive technology from La Jolla, California-based startup Aira Technology Corp., which uses mobile and wearable devices to provide guidance to the blind.

The service is a cross between a guide dog and a virtual assistant. Aira remote agents tap into a user’s handheld or wearable camera to “see” a blind person’s surroundings and provide guidance that helps them avoid everyday obstacles – or in this case, traffic cones, manhole covers and runners dodging and weaving through the crowd.

Manser, 44, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that will eventually leave him completely blind. While he still has limited vision, he describes it as “looking through a straw with the end covered by wax paper.” Diagnosed at age 5, Manser has been effectively blind his entire adult life, but that hasn’t stopped the Littleton, MA resident from completing 17 marathons (eight in Boston) and an Ironman triathlon in which his time – 11 hours and 10 minutes – was briefly the world record for a blind triathlete. He typically finishes the 26.3-mile marathon course in under 3 hours, 40 minutes.

For the record, that’s 26 sub-nine-minute miles for someone who’s effectively running in the dark.

Until Aira’s technology came along, Manser compensated by drafting behind others who were running at a similar pace or tethering himself to a colleague with a short length of rope. He’ll still be tethered for this race, but he’ll also be guided by Jessica, an Aira employee who will be linked to the camera on his Google Glass headset via AT&T’s cellular data service and earbuds that enable her to deliver spoken guidance to the runner. AT&T nurtured Aira through its Foundry for Connected Health program.

Jessica and Manser have been partners for four training runs to learn the nuances of guidance in this unusual situation. Blind people need instructions for doing things that sighted people take for granted, such as knowing that a door opens inside and from the left. Running presents some unusual obstacles, including the need to duck cars, avoid dog walkers and stay on level ground. New England presents its own unique challenges, such as snow. Many country roads lack sidewalks, and “frost heaves” created by frequent thawing and refreezing of pavement can cause roads to buckle in a manner that Manser describes as “like having a curb suddenly appear in front of me.”

Work in progress

Jessica will also look out for guidance aids such as mile markers, which help runners judge their progress and pace themselves. That’ll be a big help to Manser, whose inability to see markers in the past has caused him to run parts of the race at too fast a pace and risk dropping out from exhaustion.

Manser is a natural to become the first person to test Aira’s technology in a marathon. By day he’s an accessibility consultant and tester at IBM Corp., where he ensures that the company’s technology conforms to standards for access by the disabled. He met Aira Chief Executive Suman Kanuganti on a panel session early last year, tested the technology at a National Federation of the Blind convention in July and signed on as a tester after his remote aid helped him navigate the twists, turns and escalators of a convention hall.

The technology is still a work-in-progress with some obvious limitations. One is that the guide’s field of vision is limited by the camera in the smartphone or wearable device. Another is that human guidance is expensive and imperfect. Guidance isn’t yet available 24 hours a day, and there’s no guarantee that the user will work with the same guide each time. Manser is optimistic that the kind of technology being deployed in self-driving cars will eventually enable much of the human element to be automated or enhanced by technology.

For now, he’s focused on Monday morning, when he’ll be one of an estimated 32,000 official runners who will start the race in four waves. Manser will be wearing number 23498, and you can track his progress on the Boston Athletic Association website.

Does he expect technology will someday enable him to see normally again? Manser is realistic, but hopeful. “I’m prepared to go totally blind,” he said, “but I’m encouraged at how the future is looking.”

Update: AT&T posted the video below of Manser running the Boston Marathon (he finished in 5:11:30)

 

Photo: Paul Gillin