App guides legally blind man through Boston Marathon

Erich Manser described technology ahead of race

(U.S. Association of Blind Athletes)

Monday marked the eighth Boston Marathon that Erich Manser has run -- and his 17th marathon overall. But someone joined him for this week’s event who hasn’t always been there for Manser’s previous races: a guide who served as the Massachusetts man’s virtual eyes.

Manser, who is legally blind, is certainly used to running with a sighted guide: a fellow runner on a tether who helps navigate the race course at his side.

But now, thanks to an app and website called AIRA, Manser has even more support.

Here’s how it works: Manser uses the AIRA app on his smartphone, which has a camera feature. Through Google Glass, he wears the camera. AIRA connects Manser with a sighted agent -- for the Boston Marathon, he knew he’d be working with someone specific, a woman named Jessica -- and Jessica is able to gain access to Manser’s camera and then guide him based on what she sees, providing a detailed description of his environment.

She does all this from her desk in California.

Google Glass just acts as a mount for Manser’s camera. AIRA offers other wearable options for that piece of the technology.

Despite the fact that Manser continues to use his sighted, in-person guide David, Jessica is able to fill in some gaps for him -- and provide valuable, supplemental information while he’s on the race course.

“I have a substantial blind spot at one o'clock in my visual field,” said Manser, making reference to the hands on a clock. “So David normally runs to my left with the tether. But I can be vulnerable on the front right.”

And that’s where Jessica comes in. Manser described his vision by saying it’s kind of like looking through a drinking straw that’s covered with wax paper, meaning he has a small circle of straight-ahead vision, but the details are hazy.

Jessica, who is a runner herself, can help fill in those details. Her background in the sport means she’s familiar with the specifics involved.

Manser admitted, however, that neither one of them would be able to predict the crazy atmosphere in Boston.

“There will be 30,000 other runners in a dynamic and changing environment,” Manser said ahead of the race. “There will be people literally jumping over one another, jockeying for position or branching off. It will be a true test of the technology.”

AIRA is more typically used by people who are blind and visually impaired for tasks such as grocery shopping or navigating the airport.

And that means Monday’s marathon really was an undertaking, especially considering that Manser’s test runs with Jessica were done in a much different space, with Jessica guiding Manser down quiet country roads as he trained.

“She’ll say something like, ‘Left-hand turn in 10 steps,’” Manser said. “In Boston, we’re expecting it’ll be much different. She’ll have to convey information very quickly.”

Manser said working with Jessica has been a natural fit. She’s a seasoned agent with AIRA who has been around since the app was in beta testing. There was a smaller pool of agents then, said Manser, who worked as a tester.

It was Manser who suggested running in Boston with the technology.

Manser, 44, is employed at IBM in technology research and accessibility, working to ensure different technologies can be used by people of all abilities.

So it makes sense then that he would be drawn to AIRA, and would want to help improve the app and the experience for other users. IBM and AIRA are not affiliated, but the people at AIRA are very open to suggestions, Manser said, and they’re looking forward to receiving his feedback from the race.

It’s funny -- for someone now so deeply immersed in this world, Manser hasn’t always considered himself a runner.

“I was kind of the black sheep of my family growing up,” he said with a laugh, in reference to the fact that he was the only swimmer in a family full of runners.

In fact, Manser, who lives about 40 minutes outside Boston in a town called Littleton, swam competitively all through school and even at the collegiate level.

But when he put on some weight after college, he thought to himself, “This is crazy. I used to be an athlete,” he recalls.

So Manser laced up his shoes and hit the pavement, starting with short distances for weight loss and then tagging along on some longer runs. He was working at the time for a different tech company that had an on-site fitness center, where Manser met some other runners.

Over time, a quick lifestyle change evolved into marathon training.

Running as a person who is legally blind hasn’t always been the easiest thing.

Manser’s sight diminished over many years, and throughout college. He has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, inherited degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. Symptoms include decreased vision at night or in low light, and the loss of side vision.

Manser said he experienced night blindness as a child, which he called “a nuisance.” And then his peripheral vision started to decline.

“But I never considered myself as someone with a disability,” he said.

Still, at some point, Manser realized, he needed to make some modifications.

“In some of my earliest races, I’d run behind people who had no idea they were guiding me,” Manser said. “I’d just stay close enough where no one would be tempted to fill the space.”

And then he met other blind and visually impaired athletes. As he networked, people learned of his background in swimming and suggested he compete in triathlons.

“It’s one thing to (be running and) kick a cone,” said Manser, adding that cycling, for example, seemed a bit more daunting, considering his poor eyesight.

But then he learned about the tandem cycling concept and said he was intrigued.

It was 2006 when Manser finished his first marathon. It was around the year 2010 when he completed his first triathlon -- in New York City with a large group of other visually impaired athletes.

For a time, he held a world Ironman record for athletes with physical challenges.

So although the Boston Marathon is a huge accomplishment for anyone, this certainly isn’t Manser’s first rodeo.

But still, it felt like a big moment for the technology, leading up to this week’s race. To think that, perhaps someday, Manser wouldn’t need his sighted guide and could rely on someone like Jessica -- sitting in California but acting as his eyes -- seems like a sign of the times. It’s a step toward more independence for people living with visual impairment.

Manser’s said his experience with the AIRA agents has been outstanding.

“Every agent I’ve ever connected with has been tremendous,” he said. “If I approach a door, the agent will tell me it opens toward me and to the left. They’re trained to that level of detail. It’s a testament to how thorough they’ve been, and how they build their empathy for the needs of their users.”

He didn’t expect this week’s race to go perfectly, but said he was eager to try it out and offer suggestions.

Manser spoke of what a cool opportunity this was, but also of his appreciation for the sighted guides, as well. He’s used a bunch of them over the course of his running career, and said some have even flown out to meet him for different races.

“I can’t say enough nice things about them,” Manser said. “(Guiding is a) completely selfless act. They put in all the same effort, training and work, and they don’t expect the accolades. Just to enable me to be able to race, it’s an incredible thing. I appreciate it immensely.”

Editor’s note: It looks as if Manser finished the race and was able to use the AIRA technology. We’ll try to chat with him about how it went and provide an update.