Be My Eyes, a new Danish non-profit ‘startup’, has taken a commodity technology, the humble video call, and, by combining it with a community of sighted volunteers, used it as the basis for an iOS app that lets you help a visually-impaired person ‘see’ through their phone’s video camera.
Specifically, Be My Eyes — which recently caught the attention of Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey — works as follows: If you’re a sighted person you register with the service and wait for the app to send you a notification that a visually-impaired person who has also signed up requires help. Once a match is found, the two of you are connected via an audio/video call, essentially enabling you to ‘lend’ your eyes to the visually-impaired person who points their phone’s rear-facing camera at whatever it is they want to see. The two of you then collaborate over the call to solve the problem.
Unfortunately, however, I’ve been unable to try out the app for myself. Since officially launching yesterday, the Be My Eyes servers have been somewhat overwhelmed, while I’m told there is currently a very high ratio of sighted volunteers (over 13,000 have signed up) to visually-impaired people requiring help — which, in the long run, is probably encouraging. Meanwhile, over 2,000 ‘blind’ people have been helped so far, according to the app’s built-in metrics.
As for the type of help typically being asked for, Be My Eyes co-founder Thelle Kristensen tells me that problems related to the kitchen, such as checking the expiry date of an item of food or locating something in the fridge, rank high. He’s also had to help someone figure out how to navigate the menus of an audio player, where the gadget’s voice-over functionality fell short, as well as helping a visually-impaired person locate a specific door number when in an unfamiliar location.
The app currently employs a simple points system to encourage volunteers to keep coming back. There’s also a blocking feature so that if two people don’t get on, Be My Eyes ensures that they won’t get paired again, which could be awkward.
Kristensen also tells me the app is entirely non-profit, initially developed by a group of volunteers after they saw Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who is visually-impaired himself, pitch the idea at Startup Weekend. Since then Be My Eyes has received backing from the Danish Blind Society, the Velux Foundations and the software development studio Robocat.
There’s no current plans to monetise the app, though one future possibility, should demand outstrip supply, is that power users could pay to top up the amount of help they require. However, Kristensen was keen to stress that the basic service will always remain free.