IMPACT JOURNALISM DAY 2015: SPECIAL NEEDS

Phone app 'lends' eyes to those who are blind

The iPhone app Be My Eyes connects users who are blind with an army of sighted volunteers.
The iPhone app Be My Eyes connects users who are blind with an army of sighted volunteers. PHOTO: EMIL JUPIN & THELLE KRISTENSEN

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

MS KAMILLA Ryding has had severe visual impairment since birth but that has hardly slowed her down.

The 29­year­old, who is building a research career in her native Copenhagen, has lived in the United States and Australia. She is also a competitive distance runner.

But still, there are times when she wishes she could see, if only for a few seconds.

Thanks to fellow Dane Hans Jorgen Wiberg, she now can. Mr Wiberg is co-founder of the iPhone app Be My Eyes, which connects users who are blind with sighted volunteers.

Users access the app using the iPhone's VoiceOver controls (an Android version is under development) and Be My Eyes rings the first available volunteer.

The two are connected over the user's video camera and the sighted user lends his eyes for a fairly mundane task, such as checking the expiry date on food.

It is a process Mr Wiberg refers to as micro­volunteering. "A lot of people want to do something good, but they are busy," he said. "With this app, they have an opportunity to help out if they have time."

Ms Ryding, who has only 1 per cent of her vision left, said she typically uses Be My Eyes once a week, primarily for help in identifying household goods.

Mr Wiberg himself is visually impaired, and many of his friends who are blind were already using their iPhones to get help from family and friends for small tasks. A craftsman by trade, he had no real tech experience, but knew there must be a way to connect blind and sighted users on a larger scale.

In 2012, he presented his idea at a Danish start-up conference and Be My Eyes was born.

Less than three years later, the app was officially launched. The next thing he knew, he was at the helm of one of the year's fastest growing apps, with about 200,000 sighted volunteers, 18,000 users who are blind and connections in 80 languages.

With the app, users who are blind no longer have to rely solely on family and friends, which keeps them from feeling like a burden.

JUSTIN CREMER/SPARKNEWS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'BE MY EYES Phone app 'lends' eyes to those who are blind'. Print Edition | Subscribe