Many iPhone users with visual impairments use a video FaceTime or Skype call with a friend for a brief session of sighted help—to find a hotel room door, for instance, or to help set the controls on a washer or dryer. But what if your friends or family members are not available when you need assistance? Or maybe you call the same person again and again, and you worry you might be overstaying your welcome?
Mobile identification and text recognition apps such as TapTapSee, Talking Goggles, and the KNFB Reader can take up a lot of the slack, but there are times when you really do need a working pair of eyeballs. Now, thanks to a new iOS app called Be My Eyes, sighted help is just a tap away.
How Be My Eyes Works
Be My Eyes pairs sighted volunteers with visually impaired individuals who would appreciate a bit of remote assistance. The app is free both to download and to use.
For visually impaired users, the app could not be simpler to use. Most of the screen is taken up by a single control to connect you to the first available helper. Double tap this button and your device will announce, "Creating connection request." A few seconds later a sort of electronic ring tone begins to play, and soon you are connected to a sighted volunteer through a two-way audio and one-way video connection using the opentok/tokbox video platform.
The volunteer can view your environment through the higher-resolution rear-facing camera. With a connection established, you can converse with the volunteer, introduce yourself (if you like), and ask for help with whatever identification task is at hand. You can disconnect at any time.
When you first open the app you are asked if you need assistance or wish to provide it. In either case you are required to register. You can do this using your Facebook credentials, or you can create a Be My Eyes account with your name, e-mail address and the password of your choice. More about this later.
If you register as a helper, you merely need to leave the app running in the background. When it's your turn to offer assistance, the app will alert you. If you don't respond within 10 seconds or so, the app servers will move onto the next person in the queue and alert them. "At first we tried pinging ten people at once, so people requesting assistance would not have to wait so long for a response, but we started getting e-mails from volunteers who were frustrated because they wanted to help, but were not the first to respond," says Hans Jørgen Wiberg, the service's founder.
Turning an Idea into a Service
Like many of us, after a few remote FaceTime sessions, Wiberg had the idea that we could more easily obtain sighted help if there were only some way to tap into a wider network than just our friends and family. Unlike most of us, however, Wiberg put action to thought, and he isn't even a programmer. Wiberg, who lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a part-time upholsterer and Regional Chairman of the Danish Association of the Blind.
Wiberg took his idea to a local startup meeting, where people come together to exchange and refine ideas for new businesses and services. There he teamed up with seven others, none of whom were programmers. They formalized their idea and began searching for grant money.
With just a few thousand donated Danish Krone, the group hired outside developers to create an iOS app. They released it in the Danish App Store in November of 2014, and beta tested it with just a handful of users. After the user base reached 150 blind users and 400 helpers, the group was awarded a substantial grant from Velux, a Danish window and skylight company. Development continued until January 15, when the Be My Eyes app and service were released worldwide.
"The response was more than we dreamed," says Wiberg. "In just a few days we had over 60,000 users, most of them potential helpers," he says. "The signups came so fast, by the end of the second day we had to suspend the service while we moved to the largest server our provider can host."
The main app screen displays a running count of the number of sighted and blind users who are registered. It also displays the number of individuals who have been helped—over 10,000 in the first six days. A future app update will also include the numbers of volunteers who are currently available. "This will help users have some idea of how long it will take to either offer or receive help," says Wiberg.
Putting Be My Eyes Through its Paces
I first tried Be My Eyes just a few days after it was released. The first two attempts were unsuccessful: after 20 minutes I had not yet been connected to a volunteer. I was using the app late on a Sunday evening, around the time when the servers were being swamped with setup requests, so those circumstances may have played a part in the delays.
The next day I tried the app several times, and each time I was connected within 2 minutes. According to Wiberg, this is the norm. "There are going to be people who for some reason cannot answer an alert in time, and we have to connect to several different helpers, one at a time, before a request is answered. Other times there may be server problems caused by our rapid growth. My advice to users seeking help is that if there is no response within 3 or 4 minutes, disconnect and immediately try again."
My first Monday call was answered by a woman in Britain. My question was simple: "Is this package of teabags caffeinated or decaf?" "Caffeinated," came the reply, and after a quick "thank you," I disconnected. Total time: less than 2 minutes from start to finish.
My second request was answered by a man in California. He helped me access my thermostat and find the LCD off setting.
My third session was answered by a man in Germany. I had inadvertently left the plastic cover to a vegetable seed starter on the patio table, and sometime during the night it had blown away. Together the volunteer and I search the backyard for it. We did not find it, but the help was still useful as it saved me the considerable time I might have spent walking around the yard, hoping to encounter it.
One task I did not try, and hope I do not have cause to for some time to come, is getting help with the computer error message that has in the past locked up my screen reader or prevented it from booting. My computer seems to know when all of my friends and family are unavailable. It must—why else would it always choose those times to crash?
On initial setup, the Be My Eyes app uses your iOS device's default language setting to direct your calls. English speaking helpers are always connected with English speaking help requesters, French with French, and so forth. But the app's Setting menu offers you the ability to add additional languages, which is how I was able to connect with an English speaking helper in Germany.
According to Wiberg, your personal information is not shared with the helper. You may then wonder why you need to enter your name and e-mail address to create a Be My Eyes account. When I posed this question, Wiberg replied, "Both the helper and user can report a problem member, and we can then block that [account] and prevent [the user] from returning." Unfortunately, the version I tested, 1.2 (45), did not require any e-mail verification, which means someone could make up a series of false accounts and cause mischief. Perhaps verification will be a part of an update in a future version.
Common sense would dictate that Be My Eyes users avoid asking questions about bank or credit card statements, medical reports, or any other information you want to remain private. Wiberg offers a useful rule of thumb: "If you were walking down a street and needed to know what you are considering asking [a Be My Eyes helper], would you feel uncomfortable asking a stranger?" If so, find some other way to obtain the information. Some may wish to consider the opposite scenario: Perhaps there is something you wish to keep private from your friends and family?
It's probably best to avoid asking a Be My Eyes helper to assist in orientation at a busy intersection or other potentially dangerous scenario. Currently, the app contains no rating system for users to weed out what I can only believe would be a very few bad apples.
What's Ahead for the Be My Eyes App
Wiberg is determined to keep the service free. He states that currently they have enough money to pay for development and server resources through next September. Consequently, I would not be surprised to see a Donate button pop up in a future release of the app, on the company's website, or both.
The app is currently available only for iOS devices. There are no immediate plans to create an Android version.
Ironically, the biggest hurdle Be My Eyes currently faces is finding enough blind users. "The response to the opportunity to become volunteers has been overwhelming," says Wiberg. "If they don't get the chance to become fully involved, they may grow frustrated and uninstall the app."
Until I uninstalled it, I had a dinosaur app on my iPhone to entertain my granddaughter. Every so often, even when the app was not running, I received an alert asking if I wanted to play. I can see many potential helpers who might reset their phone or change devices, and forget to restart the app. Perhaps a future update might include a similar gentle reminder to those with the app installed but left closed for several weeks?
I also hope Wiberg and his colleagues publish a Be My Eyes API that would enable other apps to seamlessly link to the app. BlindSquare, which we reviewed in the July 2014 AccessWorld, offers the ability to reach out to someone in your contact list for a bit of e-mail or text message help. Imagine how much more powerful BlindSquare, or the Seeing Eye App for iPhone, would be if users could request sighted help directly from within their accessible navigation app?
As it is now, Be My Eyes is an extremely powerful platform whose time has come. I will still keep both TapTapSee and KNFB Reader on my iPhone home screen, but Be My Eyes will definitely be my fallback—and in many instances, my go-to—resource for those times when greater independence can best be achieved by knowing when and how to ask for help.