It was early in the morning and I was preparing for a big job interview. At that time, I was single and lived alone. Reaching into my closet, I began to pull out the clothes I would be wearing: my black skirt, matching suit jacket and a coordinating blouse. Then, with a sudden feeling of dread, I remembered that I had two identical blouses. One was white and would go fine with my outfit; the other was chocolate brown and wouldn’t. In every other way, they were exactly alike. Going to my interview in ill-matching clothes definitely would not send the message I was trying to convey. With no other alternative, I knocked on my landlady’s door and got the help I needed, firmly resolving to sew Braille tags in my blouses that very night.
That was several years ago, but I can’t help thinking how different my experience would have been if it had happened today. Thanks to a new iPhone app called Be My Eyes, I could have video chatted with a sighted helper right then and there. That person could have looked at those two blouses and told me which was the correct one to wear.
Needless to say, Be My Eyes is the talk of the blind community. It is so popular, in fact, that its creators are busier than they ever thought possible. That being said, imagine how lucky our resident IT genius, Sal Kapadia, felt to have gotten the chance to spend a few minutes over the phone with Hans Jorgen Wiberg, founder and inventor of Be My Eyes.
You might be wondering exactly how Be My Eyes works. People sign up as either helpers or as blind people needing help. The blind person is then randomly connected with a helper who happens to be available when he or she signs into the app. Even though Be My Eyes has only recently come into the Apple app store, it has become incredibly popular. As of the date of Sal’s interview, there were over 136,000 volunteer helpers and 12,600 blind users. Already, 40,000 help sessions had taken place in 80 different languages around the world.
Hans Jorgen Wiberg, the founder and inventor of this system, is not the Danish Bill Gates. In fact, he has very little technical expertise. A native of Denmark who lives south of Copenhagen, Hans is 51 years old, is married and has two children. Visually impaired himself, he has retinitis pigmentosa and experiences the “tunnel vision” that comes with that particular eye condition. Originally educated to become a farmer, he needed to change his plans when his sight began to decline. Today, he is the chairman of his local blindness organization.
As with many other innovations, Be My Eyes seems so simple in some ways that people can’t help wondering why it took so long to invent. In this case, Hans got the inspiration for it after obtaining his own iPhone. A visually impaired friend mentioned that he used FaceTime, the phone’s video chat feature, to get sighted help from acquaintances and family when he needed it. That was when Hans had his “aha moment.”
He took his idea for Be My eyes to a start-up weekend, a gathering where people with ideas for new products or services can pitch them for a minute. If the judges are interested as happened in this case, the inventor is given a team to work with who can help him flesh out your idea. At the end of the weekend, all of the teams present the results of their work. You guessed it: Hans won.
Then the hard part started. It took Hans and his team a year to raise the $300,000 necessary to lay the groundwork. Then he hired coders to actually construct the nuts and bolts. The decision was made to start in Apple’s IOS operating system, since the majority of Danish smartphone users seemed to have iPhones. Now plans are under way to expand Be My Eyes in order to assist the many blind and visually impaired Android users. Since the code is all open source, Hans welcomes tech-savvy programmers who would be willing to make Be My Eyes Android-friendly as well.
Once the team completed its building work, it was time to give the app its true test with real blind users, of which there were many in Denmark. Then, Be My Eyes premiered in the Danish app store for general download. Demand was so great that the team had to upgrade their servers three times just in the first week alone. In its opening month, Hans and the Be My Eyes group received a whopping 5,700 emails. They have also been featured on ABC, CNN, Fox News and the BBC, among others. Popular tech websites such as Cnet have also highlighted this revolutionary app.
“We really want to get every blind person in the world to know about our app so they can decide whether or not to use it,” Hans said with enthusiasm. He has already sent a flurry of emails throughout the world to blindness agencies and consumer groups. He is hoping that word of mouth will be what ultimately makes Be My Eyes a household name in the blind community around the globe.
Currently, his focus is to get the app up and running and to make improvements as he goes along. A high priority is to decrease the time it takes for a blind person and a helper to be connected and to reduce the number of dropped calls that occur.
One of Be My Eyes’ most noticeable features is its simplicity. Calls are not recorded or screened; all record of them disappears when the connection is ended. Although some customers have asked for a way to identify a helper as a favorite and to pick that person in a future session, that capability does not currently exist on the app. For as long as possible, Be My Eyes will be free. Hans and his team are looking into obtaining support from foundations, as well as large corporate sponsors. It would only become a paid subscription service if all else failed.
Considering the accolades that have rained down on this project, Sal couldn’t help asking Hans if he had any other side projects going on at this time. “I have a family,” Hans explained. “Right now it’s my side project. Right now, I don’t have time for anything else.”
Hans had a few words of caution for those who wish to use the sighted assistance offered in Be My Eyes: Since no pre-screening takes place, think of it as meeting someone on the street and asking them a question. Don’t reveal sensitive personal data or anything else that you would not comfortably tell a stranger in your daily life. Once your session has ended, there is a “report” button that you can press if you want to provide feedback about your helper.
These days, the vast majority of the buzz about this app has been glowing. “I have learned the word “awesome.”,” Hans laughed. He encourages users to provide his team with their unique stories of how Be My Eyes made a difference for them. If you have something like this to report, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you get an idea and you think it is good,” Hans offered, “I think you should really try to go there. . . It is hard work . . . but it’s so much fun when you succeed.” That advice is coming from someone who probably never dreamed that he would achieve the fame and success he has garnered. Thanks to Be My Eyes, his little app that could, he is making a difference to blind people all over the world, one session at a time.
Click below to listen to Sal’s interview with Mr. Wiberg: