Be My Eyes is an app that has only one button – to connect blind people to volunteers
Hans Jorgen Wiberg was 25 when he started to lose his sight. He was about to take over his parents’ farm. But he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that makes it hard to see things in the periphery. Instead, he went to back to university, got married and had a family. He was still studying philosophy when, five years ago, he came up with an idea for an app that would connect blind people to sighted volunteers to help with short, simple tasks.
“A friend was using Facetime to do this, but you always had to call someone you knew. I thought maybe we could do it another way,” Wiberg says from the sidelines of Oslo Innovation Week in Norway. In 2012, he went to a startup event in Arhus, in his native Denmark, where he met Christian Erfurt, a young business student who had already helped launch a health business. “Christian jumped on the idea.”
Three years later, Erfurt and Wiberg launched Be My Eyes, an app that has only one button – to connect blind people to volunteers. The app is now used by 600,990 sighted volunteers and 45,731 blind and partially-sighted people, most often when a blind person is in the kitchen, unable to read best before dates, cooking instructions or another detail in small print. It has been so successful, that neither Wiberg or Erfurt ever finished their studies.
At Oslo Innovation Week, Wiberg is welcomed to the stage to collect the festival’s annual innovation prize. This year, the prize is a pink 3D printer the size of a small suitcase.
“The main ingredient in Be My Eyes is trust,” he tells the crowd packed into a warehouse converted into a foodcourt on the docks. Nearby, the festival is exhibiting new designs for yachts and drones that reveal the bottom of the ocean, virtual reality that can help people with anxiety and new ideas about digital citizenship. Be My Eyes was championed for its simplicity and its potential to transform lives.
Accepting his gigantic digital printer, Wiberg says: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Be My Eyes was made here in Scandinavia. We have a very high degree of trust in each other. I hope that Be My Eyes can export trust to the rest of the world.”
Despite its tens of thousands of users, Be My Eyes has never been used by someone trying to deceive a blind person or to prank them, the company says. It does not reveal the identity or location of the blind person or the volunteer and it records all the calls, partly to guard against abuses, but also to learn about different test cases.
One of Wiberg’s favourite test cases was a woman using the app to read the results of a pregnancy test. “Sometimes there is information that you want to have for some time before you share it with other people,” Wiberg says. “This was this woman’s only chance to find out the results of her test without asking someone she knew.”
Warren Wilson is on his rounds for the Cambridgeshire blind charity Cam Sight when I reach him some weeks later, to hear about how he first started using Be My Eyes. Wilson has Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a genetic disease that leads to sudden vision loss in young adults. He started to lose his sight at 18. At 27, he has learned how to cope with the low acuity, or sharpness of vision, and low contrast that come with the condition, even though he can’t read small type or see people’s faces.
“One of the most bizarre things I’ve used it for is out with my girlfriend,” he says. “She’s blind as well and has a guide dog. We lost a dog toy in some long grass and we were using Be My Eyes to find it! I assume it got hoovered up by a lawnmower or something because we never did.”
Wilson recommends the app to the blind and partially sighted people he works with at Cam Sight, though he says it is one of several apps that make life easier. Tap Tap See also employs the iPhone camera app. Users double tap the screen to take a photo of something they don’t recognise and the app speaks its name. Another app, BeSpecular, recruits volunteers in a similar way to Be My Eyes. They receive voice messages from blind people and respond in text.
All have their merits, Wilson says, but Be My Eyes is especially fast. Erfurt says the average response time is 20 seconds. The app is so popular that volunteers say they are sometimes not quick enough to answer calls. On the Be My Eyes Facebook page, volunteers say how rewarding the experience is, even though calls typically last less than two minutes.
Be My Eyes was started with a €300,000 (£265,945) grant from the Velux Foundation, a Danish fund. After they had secured funding, it took a while to find the right software developers to write the code. This was 2012, Wiberg recalls, and the early days of integrating video into apps. They launched in 2015 and the day after, they had 10,000 volunteers and 1,100 blind and partially-sighted users.
Though it started out as a non-profit, Be My Eyes is now working on a sustainable business model that means it will always be free to users. It will soon double its number of buttons to two, adding a specialised help button that will give users access to commercial companies, who will pay a small fee to be listed. That might include banking services, or tech companies. Be My Eyes will help them create a service suitable for those who can’t see, and list them through the app.
I ask how that works, if the user can’t see the buttons. “If you’re blind, you can’t see anything!” Wiberg says. He explains that the iPhone transformed tech for the blind and partially sighted by introducing a service called VoiceOver, which reads out the commands. Users typically turn off the screen to save battery life, and swipe up and down to operate the phone, listening to the options.
Be My Eyes recently launched on Android, which founders hope will help them expand into developing nations where iPhones are less common.
“Ninety per cent of the blind people in the world live in developing nations,” Wiberg says. “It would be a great pleasure for me if we could help people all over the world and be a service in many languages.”
Wiberg says that even though most calls are for very small tasks, each time a volunteer helps, it means a blind person can live a more normal life. “Before Be My Eyes, you would have to wait for someone to come around to help you with small tasks. When a friend came round, you would have a list of 10 things you needed help with, like sorting the post or reading instructions. Now you can get those things out way and your friends can just be your friends.”