By Developing systems to identify the tangibles in life come to her naturally, from how to stock her canned goods to labeling her music collection so she can listen to which ever genre strikes her, Karen Koch Rasmussen can navigate life just fine without sight.
She even has a strategy for when there’s a glitch in her systems, like when a canned item goes in the wrong place. If she grabs tomatoes instead of beans, she may adjust her recipe and roll with the inconvenience.
So when an iPhone app to assist the blind came into her life, thus offering a solution to those occasional challenges, Rasmussen, 26, didn’t quite know how to use a set of eyes that were easily at her disposal.
“I’ve been blind since birth so you learn to get along without seeing,” said Rasmussen, a graduate student in political science in Aarhus, Denmark. “I’m not use to having the opportunity so I would forget there is a solution.”
The solution she uses is less than a week old and already has helped blind people with these everyday challenges more than 10,000 times.
Be My Eyes is an app available in the iTunes store. It connects blind people around the world with volunteer helpers via live video chat. As the number of blind users approaches the 5,000 mark, the app already has more than 64,000 sighted volunteers ready to assist on a moment’s notice.
A version for Android is in the works.
Koch Rasumussen was among the first to test the app, which was developed in Denmark by the software studio Robocat after a man whose sight is getting progressively worse pitched the idea at a weekend workshop on startups.
Be My Eyes has a server that quickly sorts requests for service based on language so a blind person in the UK wondering if the expiration date on the milk has passed could get the answer from someone in Los Angeles. If a blind person’s first language is not common among volunteers, the request can default to a second language the person knows. Service so far is available in more than 80 languages.
“The applications vary widely, what you imagine if you close your eyes,” said Be My Eyes CEO Thelle Kristensen, who also uses the app as a sighted volunteer. “I once helped someone read an electricity meter. There are so many devices like this that are not completely accessible to the blind.”
Han Jorgen Wiberg, a furniture upholsterer who is gradually losing his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, said he learned some of his friends were using FaceTime on their iPhones to get visual assistance. The drawback, though, is you could only call people you know. Wiberg said blind people struggle with a resistance to impose on friends or neighbors and imagined a solution with a community of volunteers who could be called on at any time.
Wiberg pitched the idea in Copenhagen three years ago and a team of eight people immediately signed on to develop the app. The first year was spent raising money and a $300,000 grant from a Danish philanthropic organization allowed the team to hire engineers to begin the building.
Among the first sighted volunteers to sign on were Wiberg’s wife and daughter and the network quickly grew through social media.
“I have tunnel vision so what I see, I see fairly good,” Wiberg said. “I don’t use the app myself but I am going totally blind for certain. This is why I am so engaged in this myself.”
Wiberg said one challenge currently being addressed is that not all blind people get their news from tech websites, which have so far given Be My Eyes the most publicity. The group is contacting organizations that serve the blind around the world to spread the word about the app and how it works.
To address safety concerns, blind users are asked to review service each time as a way to rate sighted volunteers. If a user reports a negative experience, the server automatically ensures that volunteer is never again paired with that person. A volunteer can also get quickly weeded out of service if improper behavior is reported.
Rasmussen has had a positive experience with Be My Eyes since she become a member of the first test group in November.
“I don’t have family close by and I don’t want to be that girl who asks for help at weird times,” said Rasmussen, adding she sometimes uses the app to assess the priority of mail in a stack. “I think this way I am getting better with my routines. I don’t have the compensating equipment on hand all the time so this gives you a quick answers.”