App links sighted helpers with blind people

By Damon Rose
BBC News, Ouch

image copyrightBe My Eyes

A videolink app is asking sighted volunteers to give descriptive help to blind people over the internet. But is it a good idea?

A can of soup feels very much like a can of beans. And if you shake them... they sound similar too. So if you're blind and don't fancy soup on toast tonight, you might want to think about downloading a new smartphone app which connects you via live video to a sighted volunteer who can tell you which can is which.

Hans Jorgen Wiberg is the inventor of Be My Eyes, a free app developed in Copenhagen. He says the idea is that blind people would mostly use it at home where there are many things they need to be able to see, as well as having good wi-fi connection.

Speaking on Radio 4's In Touch, Wiberg says blind users are using it in other situations too: "People have used it when they go somewhere on a bus and they get off but then they can't find the door into the building. They use Be My Eyes to get the last 20 metres.

"The response has been totally overwhelming," says Wiberg who is visually impaired himself. "We launched this 12 days ago and now we have 99,000 helpers worldwide. There are so many nice people in this world, I can tell you." A much smaller number of 8,000 blind people have signed up seeking help.

Kevin Satizabal from London recorded a demonstration of the service which he posted on the web. He hits the connect button and we hear holding music as he waits for a volunteer to appear. The music stops and someone is there, a female volunteer with an American accent. Satizabal asks if she can hear him and she says she can hear him well.

"I was just wondering if you could identify this package I've got," he says. "I'm sort of pointing the camera at it, I don't know if you can see it."

The volunteer strains her eyes to see, and responds. "It's something... Easter flurry... strawberry flavour marshmallow." After a quick "thank you" and "you're welcome" the transaction ends.

Smartphones, along with a dog or white cane, have become an important part of a blind person's toolkit. Online communities of blind technology buffs can offer information on which models which have built-in talking screenreader software, for example.

But this is the first time that live video help has been tried.

image copyrightBe My Eyes

When the Be My Eyes app is first launched it asks: "What is your role?" The user can then choose: "I am blind" or "I am sighted".

If the user is blind, it goes on to set out the rules and what can be expected: "The helpers in the Be My Eyes network are volunteers and we cannot guarantee the quality of their help or take responsibility for any of their actions. Furthermore, because we rely on real people to help you, we encourage you to be patient. When you request help you may under no circumstances share any nude, unlawful, hateful or sexually suggestive content via the service."

But is a video link to a random person entirely safe if you can't see? Some have reasoned that blind people already have to flag strangers in the street if they want directions, so doing it over the internet is arguably less of a physical risk. But Wiberg points out other obvious security concerns should be kept in mind when using the app. "You should never show your credit card to some total stranger," he says. "You have to use your family or friends for that kind of stuff.

If the user encounters any abuse they can report a volunteer. Wiberg says the app gives no information about the location of either the user or helper.

image copyrightBe My Eyes

There are already services which describe photos to blind people. A picture can be send with an attached question.

Often a volunteer will text back to seek further clarification: "Can you turn it 180 degrees and send another photo please because I can't see the front," for example. Via a video and audio connection though, someone can ask the user to "turn it a bit more... a bit more..." until a text label is visible. It's a more immediate method than waiting for a back-and-forth response to a photo which may have unwittingly been photographed at an unhelpful angle.

Another positive of this new app for users is the fact it is free. The photo-sending TapTapSee app asks blind users to pay for the help they receive, from 50 photos at $4.99 (£3.28) or a three-month unlimited deal of $24.99 (£16.43).

So how long does it take to receive help after you press the button in the new Be My Eyes video app? "When you get 99,000 sign-ups in a week we have some server issues," says Wiberg, "but when this has settled down a little bit you should be able to get help within one minute."

The project has currently received $300,000 (£197,000) for development and more development may be needed as it presently only works on Apple's iPhone. Wiberg says they are going to try and keep it a free service, and that once its fully developed it can be run fairly cheaply.

Hans Jorgen Wiberg was speaking to BBC Radio 4's In Touch programme which airs every Tuesday night at 20:40 GMT

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