In August last year, disability campaigner and visually impaired Twitter user Jonathan Attenborough used the social media network to express his appreciation for how a mobile app had helped him to overcome a poignant challenge, tweeting:
I love how tech makes seemingly impossible tasks possible. This morning using the @BeMyEyes app I was able to independently navigate a huge cemetery to take flowers to my dad’s grave.
The memory of that tweet still gives Be My Eyes chief commercial officer Alexander Hauerslev Jensen goosebumps, he says. Five years after the launch of the app, which connects people who are blind or visually impaired with sighted volunteers who help them perform everyday tasks, it’s a use case he never anticipated:
But it makes perfect sense, because here you see a situation where, as a user, you want to do something independently. You want privacy and to be able to deal with your emotions without having to rely on family and friends - and with the brief assistance of a stranger, you can have that moment for yourself. Relying on friends and family for everyday tasks can be taxing on relationships. These dependencies prevent people with visual impairments from achieving true independence in their lives.
Say what you see
Once a user has downloaded the Be My Eyes app on to their smartphone, he explains, they are connected to a volunteer who speaks the same language within one minute via a video call, with 90% of connections being made within 30 seconds.
The user then points their phone camera towards an object or a situation, and the volunteer assesses and describes what’s going on and offers relevant advice. That could be something as simple as checking they’re wearing matching socks, reading the ingredients or preparation instructions on food packaging, or helping kids with their written homework.
In other cases, a user might choose to turn to Specialized Help, a newer customer support platform within Be My Eyes, to connect to a representative of a partner company, rather than a volunteer, for more specific assistance on that company’s product or services.
For example, Procter & Gamble’s ClearBlue pregnancy testing brand started using the app in October, so that its customer support staff can read out test results to customers. Another P&G brand, Herbal Essences, soon followed, so that visually impaired customers can be assisted in picking out the right shampoo and conditioner for them, or distinguishing one product from the other. Other Specialized Help partner companies include Microsoft and Google, as well as Lloyds Banking Group.
Twilio-enabled video calls
The technology underpinning Be My Eyes comes from cloud communications platform provider, Twilio. This has replaced video connectivity from multiple providers, which started to struggle as the Be My Eyes user base grew, resulting in lags in connection time. After all, Be My Eyes now connects 178,000 blind and low-vision people with more than 3 million sighted volunteers, and spans 150 countries and 185 languages, all on a free and unlimited 24-hour basis.
What Twilio Programmable Video has provided is faster connections with higher quality and greater stability. This has resulted in a reduction in connection times of more than 50%, says Jensen:
It’s usually 30 seconds or less, sometimes as little as 15 seconds. This is something we care about a lot, because for our users, they want help right now. When you’re asking for help, a little bit of time can feel like an eternity. Every second we can shave off wait times means more trust, more engagement and a stronger bond in our community.
That community continues to grow. This week, Be My Eyes announced it has secured a Series A investment of $2.8 million in a round led by St Louis-based Cultivation Capital. Earlier investors include Singularity University, the founders of Zendesk and the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization. The investment, according to the company, will enable it to further develop its “purpose and profit” business model, based on revenues from Specialized Help partner companies, while keeping the service free and unlimited for all blind and low-vision users.
That will be increasingly important as aging populations increasingly include people with all kinds of visual impairments, points out Be My Eyes CEO Christian Erfut, who co-founded the company in 2014 with a legally blind colleague and craftsman, Hans Jorgen Wiberg:
As we grow and age, we all need help seeing at some point. It’s been a pleasure to see that not only do people want to give their time to support this large population, but also companies want to make their customer service offerings more accessible. For them, we’ve built a simple, but beautiful tool.
But, he stresses, the corporate partnership business model was specifically conceived so that Be My Eyes will never have to charge blind users for the service:
We believe that access to sight is a human right, and you don’t charge people for that.