Thursday, 24 September, 2020

Be My Eyes: Making life of visually impaired a little easier


Nikhil Shrestha

You know what? You’ve heard it hundreds of times. Technological progress, new this, new that, yada-yada-yada. No lie, it sure has made our lives a lot less complicated. For instance, who bothers or even remembers the post-office these days when it comes to sending messages to people far away.
A couple of clicks on your smartpho... ¬– hell, why bother your greasy hands covered in that juicy chicken leg piece that you’ve been chomping down on for the past couple of minutes? Just use your voice and you’re all set! When it comes to the “ease” of doing things, we’re living at a crossroads where it either could all go horribly-horribly wrong (because of the foreseeable over-dependence, the probable AI sentience, etc.) or, in the not-so-distant future, we may not need to move a muscle for practically everything.
All this talk about “ease” makes you wonder; has it even made it to the people who need it more than anyone else? AKA the accessibility. What about people with disabilities? Are they benefitting from all these advancements? The short answer is a flat no, not in a noteworthy magnitude. The modern-day smartphone is a powerful computing machine with a horde of possibilities, yet it hardly serves the disabled demographics.
Among the cluster of battle royales, beauty filters, and other applications is an app called “Be My Eyes”. Its goal is “to make the world more accessible for blind and low-vision people”. I want to ask you this – how often do you hear new inventions or developments which claim to “make the world a better place”? Such a noble statement has turned into something so boring and cliché due to the blatant overuse that you no longer care for it. A food delivery app that simply just delivers your food? Yeah, it makes the world a better place! Reminds me of that bit from HBO’s Silicon Valley. Anyway, in the case of Be My Eyes, it really does deliver on its promise.
The app’s founder, Hans Jørgen Wiberg himself is visually impaired, with a shrunk 5º field-of-view from the regular 180º. The idea is simple – it connects visually impaired people seeking help, with a sighted volunteer through real-time video call, who can then assist with the matter at hand. Launched in 2015, Be My Eyes is the largest online community for visually impaired people. The app was only available for iOS devices at its initial release. However, with its growing popularity, Be My Eyes was finally launched in the Google Play Store in October 2017. At the time of this writing, there are over 3 million sighted volunteers and 170,000 blind or visually impaired registered in the app.
Low vision or blind people need help with many things, that goes without saying. And as a community, we’ve got to do our best to lend a hand. But the busy commercial lifestyle has basically rendered us a clocked slave, with a pre-determined schedule for everything. I want to go to places, build stuff, help people, and so much more. But unfortunately, The Rolling Stones were right – “you can’t always get what you want”. Unless you’re economically fulfilled, it certainly is strenuous to tend your mind towards dedicated community service. Having said that, Be My Eyes isn’t something you need not be constantly connected to, to be productive. It’s a “micro-volunteering” platform where you help when you can, no pressure.
Now let’s get to how it works, which is pretty basic as it should be. It’s important to remember that both end-users of the app require an internet connection and a pretty strong one at that. The visually impaired user triggers the process by initiating a call for a volunteer on the app. Some of you might be wondering just how blind people will launch the app at all. That’s a valid confusion. Thankfully, accessibility features like “Text-To-Speech (TTS)” and “Virtual Assistants” to a certain degree have made the utility of smartphones accessible to the visually impaired. After triggering the virtual assistant, simply saying “Open Be My Eyes for volunteer” will initiate the process. For low-vision people, display and font size magnification would simplify the process as well.
It is like a dumbed-down version of regular video calling apps and there is no great deal of features here like call recording, group calls, filters, etc. that you may be used to. If eligible, a sighted volunteer receives a notification on his/her phone asking to whether accept or reject the call. When accepted, the session begins.
Here, the sighted volunteer sees through the rear-camera of the visually impaired. From helping with selecting items on a store to fixing the computer, one could be in for a wide range of requests. Additionally, there’s an option to remotely turn on the flashlight of the caller (visually impaired) on the sighted volunteer’s UI. This can come in handy when the surrounding has bad lighting like a dark room or it’s night time.
I saw a video on YouTube about how Google and Microsoft were working alongside Be My Eyes team to make the platform better and that’s how I came to know of the app. I’ve been registered since October 2019 with my primary language set to English and other languages set to Nepali. Fortunately, I’ve received two calls for volunteering to date! Considering the aforementioned statistics about the userbase, I’d say that’s pretty good considering that there are, on average, almost 18 sighted volunteers for every single visually impaired.
To briefly put my experience into words, it felt supremely amazing! The first call I received was from a Nepali visually impaired guy, which frankly surprised me because I didn’t remotely think the app had made it to the Nepalese community. He asked me to read his daughter’s diary for her homework assignments and I promptly did. I was so excited about the whole process that I forgot to ask for his name and how he came to hear about Be My Eyes.
A couple of weeks later, I received another call and it was from the same guy as before. This time, he asked me for technical help with his laptop’s Windows update. To spare you the intricate details, the Windows Insiders update on his device had apparently been stuck for days for which I suggested he get off the Insiders program since it’s not really something that a normal user requires. Amidst our call, the video quality deteriorated and the call ended prematurely. Therefore, I couldn’t walk the brother through the entire process.
I would’ve absolutely loved to follow up with the caller regarding the issue. However, there’s no option in the app to do so. Calls can only be initiated by a visually impaired user. Maybe the developers had concerns regarding unwarranted disturbances, but as I have pointed out, there are certain disadvantages to it as well. There could be like a personal “trusted sighted volunteer” who could then follow-up (not initiate) a call in certain dire cases.
After all is said and done, Be My Eyes is a revolutionary platform for the visually impaired people that directly and positively impacts their livelihoods. Being the micro-volunteering platform that it is, there’s no pressure on individuals sighted volunteers as well. In spite of this, there are many rooms for improvement too. Apart from the previously mentioned lack of callback feature, Be My Eyes is entirely based on the assumption that every single sighted volunteer has a good intention at heart.
What if, just what if some sicko registered as a sighted volunteer and then offered misguidance to unsuspecting visually impaired callers. The ramifications could easily be critically dangerous. Since the app and the team behind it are considerably small at this point, it is understandable that there are no safety measures against such possible frauds. However, as the platform continues to grow, it is utterly essential that Be My Eyes incorporate certain measures to entirely avoid such probabilities.

How do you feel after reading this news?