When Rory Hoffman needs to read the labels on his cassette tapes, he opens up an app. Marian Helling Wildgruber finds the spices in her kitchen cabinet by pulling out her phone. Tabitha Jackson grabs her phone before she goes grocery shopping.
Hoffman, Wildgruber and Jackson all are blind or visually impaired. So tasks like reading labels, selecting the right herbs and navigating stores can prove challenging.
That’s where Be My Eyes comes in. It’s a mobile app that connects people who are blind or visually impaired with volunteers who have normal vision. By tapping their camera’s video function, volunteers can guide people with vision impairments in a variety of daily tasks.
The app launched in 2015, and within 11 days, it had 100,000 volunteers. Now, four years later, two million volunteers have joined Be My Eyes. It’s part of a movement coined microvolunteering, whereby small tasks performed by many people can add up to real impact on a large scale. For Be My Eyes volunteers, there’s no commitment to a certain number of calls. It’s just a chance to help someone out when they need it.
There is an estimated 1.3 billion people with some form of visual impairment worldwide. People who are visually impaired might have family or neighbors they can rely on, but on-demand support 24/7 is unlikely. Sometimes an extra set of eyes is helpful.
Hoffman uses Be My Eyes a few times a week. He typically relies on a neighbor to help him with tasks that require normal vision, but it’s nice to know there’s immediate help at hand, he says.
“I don’t have to wait for anyone to come, I can just take care of it immediately.”
Hoffman, who is a musician, recently wanted to replace the strings on his guitar. But it was impossible for him to feel the slight differences between each string. So Hoffman pulled out his phone and using the phone’s voice recognition feature, made a call on Be My Eyes.
There, a volunteer popped up and read the guitar string labels. In just a few minutes, Hoffman had the right strings for his guitar.
“There are some times when having somebody with a pair of eyes just makes things helpful,” he says. “And to be able to just connect to somebody who’s available to help, that’s really a great idea.”
The app was founded by Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a Danish furniture designer. Widberg, who is visually impaired, was talking with a few of his blind friends when they said they all relied on FaceTime to connect with family and friends for assistance.
Widberg realized this idea could work with volunteers. He brought his idea to a startup weekend in Denmark in 2012, where he met Thelle Kristensen. Together they formed a team. It took two and a half years to develop and bring the app to the market.
“The fire in our belly was to make a worldwide network of volunteers to help out, and it’s been great to see the reaction with ten times as many sighted as blind people,” says Kristensen, the co-founder and CEO of Be My Eyes.
Lauren Traut was deep in conversation when her phone rang, and she received a notification from Be My Eyes that someone needed assistance.
“I told my friend, ‘Hold on. Pause. I got to take this call.’”
On the line was a woman who needed help reading a letter. It was from a church thanking her for a donation she recently made in honor of her husband and daughter who had recently passed.
Traut said the appreciation in the woman’s words had a lasting impact.
“Granted that task probably wasn’t life-changing for her,” Traut says, “But it’s simple things like that that maybe fully sighted people take for granted.”
Traut says the sheer magnitude of volunteers on the app is incredible. But this also means a single volunteer won’t get too many calls.
Traut downloaded the app in June 2017. Since then, she says she’s only received six or seven calls.
But for Wildgruber, it’s reassuring to know she won’t be bothering anyone.
“You know the volunteers are answering the phone if they want to,” she says. “And knowing that if you call a few times a day, you’re not bothering anyone.”
“Sometimes it’s a quick fix, other times it’s a longer conversation of what’s life like where you are,” says Christian Erfurt, the chief executive of Be My Eyes. “That reminds us that we’re not that different, and the gap between ‘us and them’ is minimized.”