App lets you be the change you wish to see

24th February 2017
Alice Matthews

Whether it be going to school, taking public transport or cooking dinner, for the majority of the time visually impaired people can live their lives just like a sighted person. Occasionally, however, there are certain tasks which require sight, for example pairing up socks or finding the right colour of thread to stitch up a rip in your favourite t-shirt.

Before the development of the Be My Eyes iPhone app, you would have had to ask a friend or family member for help, which isn’t always practical or indeed possible. Work on the project began in Denmark 2012 by Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who is himself visually impaired.

The app launched on 15th January 2015. The concept is simple: to help visually impaired people with everyday tasks by connecting them with their fully sighted counterparts worldwide. The iPhone app makes a live video connection from a blind person’s phone to a random volunteer’s iPhone.

Visually impaired people can use an iPhone thanks to the Accessibility option, in particular the VoiceOver feature which lets them hear a description of everything happening on their screen. All users are aware that the iPhone can also be easily voice controlled via Siri, and its responses can also be read out loud instead.

So how does it work? Firstly, the blind person requests assistance by using the app. Then, a ‘suitable’ volunteer will receive the call, i.e. someone who speaks the same language and is in a time zone where it is between 7am – 10pm. The company hopes that users will soon be able to select a more precise time frame to suit them. A live video connection will then be established through which the volunteer can answer their question.

In a recently published video by the BBC, the current number of users is estimated at 457,000 sighted volunteers and 32 600 blind people. The company is now hoping to expand the reach of its app to the developing world where 90% of visually impaired people live.

Visually impaired users are said to like the anonymous factor of the app. While constantly asking for help from a friend or family member can seem time consuming or even embarrassing, Be My Eyes cuts out this step and ultimately makes the user more independent.

With its tagline ‘lend your eyes to the blind,’ the app looks set to be an important part of the sharing economy seeing as both parties benefit from the interaction. While currently only available on iOS, the startup is in the process of developing an Android version. At present there are more than 50 languages spoken on the app and following the release of the Android app this number will surely continue to grow.

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