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COLUMN: App sees opportunity to help visually impaired

Be My Eyes connects visually impaired people around the world to volunteers — like reporter Kevin Lamb — to help with small, everyday tasks
Stock image.

My phone rang last night just after dinner.

It was a video call.

A person on the other end of the line asked me if I could help them figure out which food container was which when he pulled them out of his freezer.

While holding a small plastic container with a piece of tape stuck to the top of the lid up to his phone camera, he asks: “Can you tell me what this one says?”

“It says chicken and rice,” I reply.

“OK. What about this one?”

The man raises another up for me to see.

“Pho,” I say.

Be My Eyes is an ingenious mobile app which connects around 500,000 blind people to just over 7.2 million volunteers. Visually impaired people in need of assistance use the app to conquer small, everyday tasks the rest of us take for granted. | Kevin Lamb/BarrieToday

“That’s the one,” he says. “Thanks!”

With that task completed, we switch to small talk about the weather. He says he’s in Calgary.

We exchange a few more pleasantries, finish up with the call and bid each other farewell.

I went back to what I was doing before the call — using a screwdriver to 'MacGyver' a solution to a jammed stapler hinge for my teacher wife. It wasn’t going well.

The interaction that just occurred was through a mobile app called Be My Eyes, an ingenious network that connects some 500,000 visually impaired people to more than 7.2 million volunteers — and counting — who have signed on to receive calls for help.

Blind or visually impaired people in need of help use the app to conquer small, everyday tasks the rest of us take for granted.

These can range from identifying labels on objects and reading expiry dates on food packaging to describing the colour of a sweater or pants.

When I first stumbled across the app in early 2020, I was more than willing to offer my own eyesight in the service of those who are visually impaired.

The first call I received was from a man in the southern United States. He was having trouble finding the right sequence of buttons on his TV remote, so I helped him out, as well as enjoying the sound of his southern drawl.

It’s a great feeling to get that call at any time of the day and knowing I can give someone a helping hand. It’s 21st-century altruism at its finest and most fun.

Be My Eyes was created by a clever guy in Denmark named Hans Jørgen Wiberg. He was a furniture craftsman, who is visually impaired himself.

Wiberg demonstrated in 2012 that video communication software such as FaceTime and Skype existed for the masses, but there were no technologies created for the visually impaired.

On Jan. 15, 2015, the Be My Eyes app was released for Apple iOS devices, and within 24 hours the app had more than 10,000 users. It was a smashing success right out of the gate.

The company has received millions of investment dollars over the years to further develop its business model, enabling the support service to continue to be free and unlimited for all visually impaired users.

I can say with absolute confidence that Be My Eyes is my favourite app on my phone.

Now, if only someone could create an app for people who have perfectly good eyes but who are all thumbs, such as myself, maybe that darn stapler will work again.

Kevin Lamb is a staff reporter at BarrieToday.

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About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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