Lending eyesight through technology

Mobile app connects the visually impaired with volunteers to provide quick assistance

A man covering his eyes with a phone showing a different set of eyes.

Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes
The company’s brand image illustrates the concept.

Rasmus Falck
Oslo, Norway

During the official opening of Oslo Innovation Week this year, the Oslo Innovation Award 2017 was awarded to Be My Eyes, a free mobile app designed to bring sight to the blind and visually impaired. The company is a nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 users and 500,000 volunteers worldwide. The premise is simple: a blind or visually impaired person who needs help with a daily task, such as reading the expiration date on a milk carton or the departure board at a train station, contacts a sighted volunteer through the iPhone’s video chat and gets help immediately.

The team receiving the award.

Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes
The team behind Be My Eyes was honored with the Oslo Innovation Award at this year’s Oslo Innovation Week.

The idea behind Be My Eyes came from Danish Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a 50-year-old furniture craftsman who started losing his vision when he was 25. At that time, he gave up plans to take over the family dairy farm. He studied philosophy, had a family, and worked as an upholsterer in his wife’s furniture shop. He also volunteered at facilities for the blind and visually impaired.

Technology was advancing and enabled the visually impaired to do things once thought impossible. Wiberg heard from blind folks that they used FaceTime, an iPhone video-conferencing tool, to seek help with simple tasks from sighted people. But they also felt they were overburdening family, friends, and neighbors with their constant requests.

With the press of a button, the app establishes a live video connection between blind and visually impaired users and sighted volunteers. Every day, volunteers are lending their eyes to solve challenges both big and small. With more than half a million volunteers across 150 countries, the company has grown to become the largest online community for the blind and visually impaired. The app harnesses the power of generosity, technology, and human connection to allow impaired individuals to live more independent lives.

A person holding his phone up to a milk carton.

Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes
One example of how a visually impaired user can take advantage of the service—by getting help seeing expiration dates.

How does it work? When you log in to the app, the main screen displays a button that reads, “Connect to first available volunteer.” If you need visual assistance with something, simply tap this button. Be My Eyes will call a sighted volunteer who speaks your language and establish a video connection using your phone’s camera and both participants’ microphones. The sighted volunteer will explain the things that you point your camera at. The volunteers are called at random and the technology matches based on language and time zone, so you never need to worry about disturbing anyone!

The volunteers receive a notification on their smartphone that a Be My Eyes user is seeking help. If they choose to accept the call, a live video connection is established between both parties. If a volunteer is unable to answer a call, someone else will step in as the call is automatically forwarded to other volunteers until answered. Most calls are answered within 45 seconds. Due to the size of the volunteer network and sophisticated matching technology, the app enables the user to request assistance in their native language 24 hours a day. Whether the user needs support distinguishing between household products, reading instructions, or solving a technical difficulty, the volunteers will help.

According to the founder, it takes only a few minutes to help and the app is therefore a good opportunity for the busy, modern individual with the energy to help others. Lend your eyes to the blind!

For more information, or to volunteer with Be My Eyes, visit bemyeyes.com.

Rasmus Falck is a strong innovation and entrepreneurship advocate. The author of “What do the best do better” and “The board of directors as a resource in SME,” he received his masters degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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