Technology First Look

Be My Eyes: App lets the sighted lend their eyes to the blind

How a relatively simple piece of programming is creating global micro-volunteering opportunities.

A blind person requests assistance in the Be My Eyes app, in this promotional photo.
Courtesy of Be My Eyes
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Caption

The app has been around for a couple of years, but you may not have seen or heard of it yet.

It’s called Be My Eyes, and it helps connect people who are blind or visually impaired with sighted people.

Be My Eyes is a simple concept. It allows people with visual impairment who thrive independently but still need just a bit of help from a seeing person, perhaps reading a label while they cook dinner or selecting the right color thread. With the touch of a button, or a simple voice command, the help-seeker can connect with a sighted volunteer via smartphone. The camera on the phone enables the volunteer to serve as a proxy set of eyes for the seeker.

In just a few years, since the micro-volunteering project was launched as a Silicon Valley start-up in 2015, more than 400,000 volunteers from as far-flung places as Thailand and Australia have signed on to offer their assistance to some 33,000 visually impaired registrants. The high ratio of volunteers to seekers and their distribution around the world means people in need of help rarely have to wait very long and volunteers don't have to make any significant time commitments, according to the company.

Shortly after the project's launch, NPR’s Aarti Shahani offered listeners a glimpse of how the project can help people who are largely independent, enhance that independence, with a visit to Lisa Maria Martinez. Ms. Martinez has a little vision, but grew up reading Braille not print, so food labels are not easy to read.

In the segment, Martinez, who lives in California, was cooking dinner before her husband and kids got home. She was making spaghetti and had most of her ingredients laid out on the table, but wasn’t exactly sure what was what.

Martinez powered up the app and next thing she knew, Kayley Bennett, on vacation in Western Australia’s Exmouth was helping her choose from three sauces. She goes with a three-cheese (parmesan, asiago, romano) sauce.

Ms. Shahani asks Ms. Bennett why she’s volunteering: "Well, they just call you whenever," she says. "It just comes up as a notification, so ..."

Most reports about the app have been positive.

“On my first call, someone in Stockholm, Sweden answered,” Audrey Demmitt wrote in a blog post for Vision Aware. "It was morning for me and evening for them. The volunteer helped me choose between a regular coffee and a decaf coffee pod for my Keurig. All I had to do was point my phone at what it was I wanted to see and it showed up on the camera. The call lasted a minute or so. I thanked him kindly and said good-bye. Then I tapped at the bottom of the screen to disconnect the call.”

The founder is Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a 50-something Danish furniture craftsman who began losing his vision at age 25.

“It's my hope that by helping each other as an online community, Be My Eyes will make a big difference in the everyday lives of blind people all over the world,” he is quoted as saying on the Be My Eyes website.

The app was so popular when it started that it crashed the servers. Within its first year, the number of volunteers far outstripped the number of blind or vision-impaired subscribers – 24,000 to 300,000.

"You have a chance just to step in or step out of your everyday life just for a brief moment and then do something good within a couple of minutes," Christian Erfurt told NPR. "I think that's very appealing for people."

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