The App That Lets Blind People Borrow Your Eyes

Be My Eyes connects blind users with sighted volunteers for assistance with small tasks like reading food labels.

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Feb 10 2015, 4:45pm

​Image: ​waldopepper/Flickr

​Blind people don't need your help, but once in awhile it could be handy to borrow your eyes. So one visually-impaired developer has created an app to make it easy for blind individuals to borrow your eyes for just a minute.

Be My Eyes is ​a new app that connects blind users' cameras to the phones of sighted volunteers who can serve as virtual eyeballs and identify whatever it is the blind user needs looked at (like the expiration date on a container of yogurt). It launched in mid-January after a ​mildly-successful Indiegogo campaign two years ago, and already has a large, growing user base, with 11,500 and 128,000 blind and sighted users, respectively. According to the app's automatically updated stats, there have been 34,500 interactions already and users can connect in 80 different languages.

"I thought it might be difficult to find helpers, so we're totally surprised by those numbers," said app creator Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who is visually-impaired himself.

Wiberg said a lot of visually-impaired people already use FaceTime and similar apps to connect with sighted friends and family when they need help with something, but they don't want to feel like a nuisance. He wanted to create an app that allows them to get help quickly and without a lot of exposition.

"You can ask for help without asking," he told me. "You just press the button and then you are 100 percent sure that the person who picks up the call is willing to help you because that's why he or she signed up. You don't have to feel that you are disturbing anybody."

I've had the app for a week and haven't been pinged for help even once, but given the huge ratio of sighted users to blind users, it's not all that surprising. Besides, blind people have a lot of strategies, tools, and tec​hnology so that they rarely actually need a pair of eyes. Wiberg said he has received thousands of emails from sighted users wondering if the app is working because they haven't been requested for help.

And since the need is fairly small, a lot of blind people might opt just to ring their pal rather than a total stranger, according to Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind.

"If it's between going to somebody you know and going to random volunteer, what is the average blind person going to chose?" he told me, noting there is also a privacy concern since anyone can sign up and immediately be connected to a stranger. (Wiberg says the Uber-like, post-connection rating system eliminates any bad apples.)

Danielsen said while it's always nice to see new technology developed to solve little problems blind people might face, it's not going to be life-changing.

"I appreciate the effort that's been put into this but we are always careful to emphasize that blind people are not helpless. We have been coping with these issues all our lives without this technology," he said.

Wiberg himself stressed the fact that blind people are just fine without the aid of sighted people. Still, for little day-to-day things, the app does serve a need.

"Sometimes there are situations where you need a pair of eyes," Danielsen said.