Visually-impaired persons find spare eyes in phone app
What you need to know:
- Be My Eyes uses technology to make other people see for you what you need to see, from traffic to barriers on the road down to signposts and what clothes to put on.
In the nine years Abubaker Kirunda has been visually-impaired, he has had to rely on a helper for many day-to-day activities. But now he can prepare meals, recognise objects, and perform tasks at home or work after technology granted him spare eyes at his fingertip.
Be My Eyes is that spare eye – even if only in a way – a borrowed sight because it is really using technology to make other people see for you what you need to see, from traffic to barriers on the road down to signposts and what clothes to put on.
“This app has simplified my life in so many ways. It is helping me to do so many things more independently. The app has been so essential and beneficial since I started using it,’’ Kirunda says of the Danish mobile app.
The technology is one of the hallmarks of social inclusion that is helping the visually-impaired persons connect with an online community of sighted volunteers, who receive photos or videos from randomly assigned affected individuals and assist via live chat.
Mr Kirunda, a journalist with Nation Media Group, has been struggling to live independently until last December when he attended a training in Mbale City where the visually-impaired were taught how to use the app.
From advances in white canes that are now equipped with ultrasonic devices that detect obstacles up to nine feet away, the new app is the way to go, says Esther Kyozira, the chief executive officer of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu).
White cane uses vibrations in the handle to warn users of potential hazards in their path. But Be My Eyes makes the most of features of a mobile device such as a camera, contact list, GPS, phone calls, accelerometer, compass, etc to make the user experience interactive and fun.
“The app has increased my level of independence. I can perform certain tasks with minimum support. It has reduced the dependency syndrome. It has helped me with visual assistance for tasks like matching colours, preparing food, and checking if the lights are on,” says Fazira Kawuma, the Jinja City deputy mayor, one of the visually-impaired Ugandans using Be My Eyes.
Navigating the streets is a challenge Kirunda faces everyday, but the new app makes his experience totally different because he can move without the help of a friend or relative.
Now he gets a solution whenever he needs a sighted opinion.
“I turn to be My Eyes before I even think of any other way,’’ he says.
How it works
The app is downloaded and installed on a smartphone.
“You tap on it twice, you wait, it rings, and then the available volunteer picks. It is like telephone customer service. I have my headphones in, then there is a voice talking to me, giving me information about my environment. Not just what is in front of me but what’s to my right and left. Giving me the distance between me and other objects around me. In case there is a pothole, they tell you,” Kirunda explains.
Kirunda appeals to sighted people to join other volunteer communities by downloading the Be My Eyes app, so that they can support people who are visually-impaired and assist them in achieving semi-independence in public spaces.
He says the volunteers he talks to most times are from different countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. But there are also some in Uganda in the areas of Ntinda and Naalya in Kampala.
“Everyone should join the app because the situation is not invited for. Today you’re okay, and tomorrow you will be the one in need of assistance. I was born normal but I lost my sight a few years after finishing university,” he says.
Kawuma says the app is voluntary and the help is from anonymous persons, which takes away that inkling feeling of “bothering anyone like the way she is uncomfortable always asking friends and relatives for help with simple tasks.”
However, while the app has improved mobility among the visually-impaired persons, it has some challenges, including the accent of the volunteers, language barrier to those who don’t speak English, and lack of devices for the low-income earners.
“The volunteers are willing to receive calls and help, but some of them are not clear because of different accents like those from India and Egypt,” the Jinja deputy mayor says.
“Since English is the most common language that is being used, some users don’t understand it well and others who want to use the app don’t have the capacity to buy smart phones.”
Speaking to Saturday Monitor, one of the volunteers from Nairobi, Kenya, who prefers to identify herself only as Hafswa, says being part of the Be My Eyes community has been a fulfilling experience.
Hafswa says she feels great being able to help people through the app.
“It is amazing, I feel good to have an opportunity to help people in need. I have been able to assist several users with everyday tasks,” she says.
“The volunteers are always ready to help because when a user calls and you delay to pick, they tell you another person has picked the call.”
Kirunda says the app gives him a network of people so that he is not really worried about calling the same person.
“I don’t get worried that I’ve reached out to this person 20 times asking stuff. It basically spreads the load between multiple people and that helps me a lot in reaching out more often. If the first person is not clear, the second will be clear. Some are soft spoken, others are not,’’ he says.
Hafswa says although they are ready to help the visually-impaired, some do not have good phone cameras.
“The challenge is that some cameras are not clear. It is hard to see what the other person is showing you,” she said.
Nudipu’s Kyozira calls on the government to ease access to the assistive device by creating an enabling environment for persons with visual impairment to access smartphones that can operate the Be My Eyes app.
The app is free to use and available on both iOS and Android.
Other technologies that can help ease mobility for the visually-impaired include Aira, TapTapSee, Lookout by Google, Seeing AI, Supersense, Bespecular, Cash Reader, VoiceOver, and TalkBack.
Others include Google Assistant, Google Maps, Moovit, Microsoft Soundscape, Evelity, MyMoveo and OrCam MyEye.
According to its website, Be My Eyes was launched in January 2015. So far 6,256,150 volunteers have signed up to assist the visually-impaired users.
Be My Eyes users can request assistance in over 180 languages, making the app the biggest online community for the visually-impaired people, as well as one of the largest micro-volunteering platforms in the world! Every day, volunteers sign onto Be My Eyes to lend their sight to the visually-impaired individuals to tackle challenges and solve problems together.
The Be My Eyes story started in Denmark in 2012, with Hans Jorgen Wiberg, a Danish furniture craftsman, who is visually-impaired himself.
Through his work at ‘The Danish Association of the Blind’, he recognised that visually-impaired people often needed assistance to solve everyday tasks.
However, it wasn’t until a visually-impaired friend told him that he used video calls to connect with family and friends, who could help him with these tasks, that Hans Jorgen Wiberg got the idea for Be My Eyes.
He believed that the technology of video calls could be used to visually assist visually-impaired individuals, without them having to rely on friends and family, but using a network of volunteers.
In April 2012, Hans Jorgen presented his idea at a Danish startup event, where he got connected with a team that was ready to make Be My Eyes a reality.
On January 15, 2015, the Be My Eyes app was released for iOS, and within 24 hours it had more than 10,000 users. Since the release of the iOS app, an Android version was in high demand.
The Android version was finally released on October 5, 2017. Two months later, Be My Eyes was chosen as Google Play Best Apps of 2017 in the categories “Most Innovative”, “Best Daily Helper” and “Best Hidden Gem”, and in May 2018, Be My Eyes won the Google Play Award 2018 for “Best Accessibility Award”.