I’ve Got My Eyes in My Pocket

Specialty smartphone apps have flowed downstream to the blind community for some time. Apps that can read the value of your paper money or tell you the color of your t-shirt have been around for a while.

 "Be My Eyes" app screenshot.

"Be My Eyes" app screenshot.

And now blind folks are using the camera on their device, not as a parlor trick to snap photos of their pals, but as remote eyeballs.

For the past year or so I have been facetiming (Apple’s real time 2-way video calling feature) with my daughter to help me distinguish between my meds, neckties and the hardboiled egg that dropped and rolled across my kitchen floor. But she’s not always available. And what happens at 3 o’clock in the morning when I need some sighted assistance? So, downloading the Be My Eyes app was a no-brainer for me.

Be My Eyes is an app that claims that it “brings sight to the blind and visually impaired.”

The app engages the video capabilities of smartphones to turn them into virtual eyes. It allows blind folks to make video calls to volunteers who are ready to help them see stuff.

The good folks behind Be My Eyes explain that the sighted helpers are “friendly citizens who are willing to lend their sight as they go about their daily lives.”

The nifty network boasts that there are over half a million sighted helpers and over 35 thousand blind and visually impaired users in the Be My Eyes community. The volunteers are ready and willing to assist blind folks in every time zone and in over 90 languages. This makes it available to the user – that’s me – 24/7.

It’s an around the clock deal. Whenever you call, it keeps buzzing around the globe until it finds an available volunteer who speaks your language and who’s living in a zone where it’s daytime. If it’s the middle of the night in the U.S., for example, you might be connecting with someone in Europe or Australia.

Just yesterday at around 2:30 a.m., I reached into my freezer and pulled out a half melted (half frozen if you’re an optimist) strawberry fruit bar. So I activated the Be My Eyes app and connected with a student in Turkey. She helped me figure out that I had accidentally bumped the temperature setting on my digital fridge panel and she helped me to reset it. We then had a lively conversation about who had the more “colorful” president.

Last week I went to clean my dining room table and just before spraying the lemon furniture polish on it, I called BME to be certain I had the right stuff. I found out just in time that it was roach killer I was about to spray all over my beautiful oak-wood table. A few days later, my roboeyes helped me find the avocado I dropped on the kitchen floor. (I drop a lot of stuff on the kitchen floor.) Then the BME volunteer helped me read a message on my computer screen when my screen reader was misbehaving and stopped speaking.

 "avocado, down!"

"avocado, down!"

Turns out the program is good for the volunteers as well as blind folks.

Sighted helpers have reported: “…feelings of usefulness when answering a call and successfully helping a blind person,” how “awesome it felt to be able to be someone’s eyes in a time of need” and “being eager for the next call.”

And out of the mouths of users: “I do not know what I would do without this app. It has been a lifesaver for me.” … “Volunteers have looked through catalogs with me and have also helped me sort out my CD collection.” … “I had a man tell me the kind of tea and another woman tell me it was a can of tomatoes. It sounds like a small thing but I can tell you it is not! Remember it is the small things in a person’s life that make a big difference.”

The Be My Eyes team reminds us that it’s summertime. You might be going on vacation and into unfamiliar surroundings and that now “…you can feel secure and even more independent knowing that you are never really alone as you tackle new activities and places… You’ve got Volunteers in your pocket, waiting to assist you whenever and wherever you need them… Once you try it, you will never leave home, the state, or the country without it.”

I recall once being at a hotel and washing my hair with body lotion since the bottles containing shampoo, conditioner and lotion were all identical in size and all smelled like the same flower. Thermostats are always a guessing game as to which button is cool and which is heat and if the up down temp buttons move in half or whole degree steps. And the TV remote controls? Yikes! I’ll be calling BME from now on when I’m obsessing over the small stuff in my hotel room.

I was reading about Gayle Yarnall, the blind former director of adaptive technology at Perkins Products, who also experienced some anxiety when she traveled.

“I normally always read about a place before going there,” Gayle mused. “There are many cultural differences to be aware of. Like in Japan, you will find that a toilet has 8 buttons. So it’s just a matter of trial and error before hitting the right one.” Now she knows what button to push. Of course, it’s more than just bathroom management for Gayle. “A whole new world has opened for me, and I will bring the app everywhere.”

The folks at Be My Eyes stress that “with over half a million volunteers you can, and should, feel free to make calls as frequently as you wish without ever disturbing anyone.” In fact, they have many volunteers who are still waiting to receive their first help request. You can use Be My Eyes as much as you possibly want – and the service is free, no matter how much you use it.

So, until tech comes up with bionic orbs they can plug into my eye sockets, I’ll carry my eyes around in my pocket.

For info on Be My Eyes, check out Info@bemyeyes.com.

Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude