Volume 3, Episode 1: Discussion with Hans Wiberg of Be My Eyes

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Hans Wiberg, founder of Be My Eyes, joins Mark Miller to discuss the phenomenon of this new iPhone app that allows sited individuals to be the eyes for someone who is blind and needs a quick set of eyes.

Announcer: Welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast, bringing you people, technology, and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone.

Mark: Hey, welcome to the IAP!  I'm your host Mark Miller. Thank you for making us keep it accessible.  Do us a favor.  If you're enjoying the IAP, share it.  Tell someone about it.  Hey, even link to it from your accessible website.  So, I got a guest here, Hans Wiberg, who is responsible for a new app for an iphone called Be My Eyes, and this is a very, very interesting app. And I have to say, Hans, that I checked out your TedEx.  I've done a little bit of research into this.  This is a fantastic idea.  Can you tell us a little bit about this application and how you came up with the idea for it?

Hans: Yes, the idea is to help blind people get useful assistance through their smartphones…. And what we have done is we have made this a simple app that connects blind people's iphones with sight people's iphones.  So you, as a blind person, can be in your house, and you can have someone…you can lend someone's eyes for a moment.

Mark: That's...that's…it's so..such a simple concept and it's one of those things where I look at it and I go "Why didn't I think of this"' and "Why hasn't someone else thought of this before?"  And I have to imagine that at some point people who are blind were using their sighted friends this way, maybe through a Facetime, or a Skype, or something like that.  Is that how you got the idea for it, or did it come to you in a different way?

Hans: No, no, it's…At some point I got myself an iphone.  I start using it.  I also tried Skype and Facetime on the iphone, and I talk this to some of my blind friends and they told me, "I do that already."  And then, "But I always have to call someone," he said.  And that's the point where I got this idea where we should make a group of volunteers who could answer such a call.  And that's pretty much the simple idea behind it.

Mark: So correct me if I have this wrong. But basically, the way I understand it, it's sorta a combination between maybe a little bit of a social network and it also got some game type features to it—gamification features.  And as a sighted person, you sign up into the network.  And then when a blind person needs assistance…and the one I always think of is if they have several cans on the shelf and they're in the mood for tomato soup that day, it would be very difficult unless they had a sighted individual with them to know which can was the tomato soup, especially if it got mixed up or something.  And then literally they can say "Hey, I need help" and a sighted person can come on. And using the camera already on the phone, they just show them the can of the soup and say "Hey, it's the third one on the left is what you're looking for."  And then that sighted person gets kinda rewarded within the system.  Would the ranking system go up for them if they help so many people?

Hans: When we made this app, we thought we have to find helpers.  So we think we need to make some kind of point system where people can be encouraged to do this.  So we made it, but it's just a plain system..  When you help, you get points.  You can't do anything with the points.  You can't go trade in for something.  It's just to tell your friends, "Oh I have 100%...I have 100 points in this Be My Eyes thing."

Mark: That's great.  it's like bragging rights…

Hans: It's not that much of a gamification, but yeah, we thought it would be kind of fun.

Mark: I think…I think it's always interesting when you put those things any place as long as it's appropriate, because it's nice to know..I mean even with the individual who's volunteering and helping. It's sorta fun to have a little system in place.  So I think that's fantastic.  Now was it quick to be adopted when you put this out there and started publicizing it?  Did you have both individuals who are blind and sighted?

Hans: It has been amazing because we launched this the 15th of January…

Mark: It's not that long ago.

Hans: No, and we have been… Now we have…. Today we have 115,000 helpers around the world…

Mark: Holy Moly!

Hans: And we had just yesterday we reached 10,000 blind people who have signed in.

Mark: That's amazing.

Hans: These numbers are by themselves amazing.  But what I find most amazing is that right now we are connecting people in 80 different languages.

Mark: Unbelievable.

Hans: So that's mind blowing. It's not something that's in Denmark and the U.S.  It's spread all over the world.  '

Mark: Well…

Hans: It's really, really amazing.

Mark: It absolutely is. And what struck me when I was looking..  You have some videos online, and I watched your TedEx.  It seems…it seems to me that I always think of technology—being in the accessibility industry as we are--has always helped individuals who are blind quite a bit.  There are a lot of advantages that are out there now, especially when you look at 3-D printing and other things that are happening.  And, of course, I'm privileged to know quite a few blind people so I sorta understand how they use technology to help them get through their day.  This seems to be like almost the last little leap that was needed because the final point when you just…I dropped my keys , I can't remember which can is the tomato soup or whatever the situation is when you need a pair of eyes in your everyday life….and your wife is gone or you live alone—whatever.  This just seems like that little step to get…to get blind people to have that independence that they're really longing for, I think.

Hans: That's exactly what we're aiming for… It's important for me to say that we don't consider blind people as helpless or anything…

Mark: no, not at all…

Hans: There are just some small situations once in awhile when you need a pair of eyes just for a minute, and you don't want to walk over and ask a neighbor because it's just a little thing.  And then this can help you out.  And the beauty of this is that you can ask ten times a day if you want without being a burden to anyone or anything because you're 100% sure that the person who answers the call is willing to help you because that's why he signed up to do this.

Mark: That is amazing, that is amazing.  And I agree with you about blind people…blind people are not helpless.  I know several blind people, and they do more amazing things than a lot of other people I know.  So that's absolutely true.  And I think about in my daily life the phone calls that I make or the google searches that I do, or like you and I are connected to do this interview on Skype,  people who I skype to help me with something quickly every day.  So I view this as just another advancement in technology that allows people to help each other out in a new way.

Hans: And we like the fact that, of course, not everybody has an iphone.  But if you have this iphone and you use it, then it's not an extra device that you have to buy to use this service.  It's something that you already have in your pocket and you're familiar with, so on.   Many times, as a handicapped person, you need something. Then you get this big trunky handicapped thing that you don't want to show off.  Now you just use a regular phone.

Mark: It's just another app.  I mean it's like…if you want to know what gas station has the cheapest gas or if you want to use the GPS to get yourself somewhere, it's just another app that assists you in your daily life.  And I think it's brilliant because, like you said, there's no overhead to somebody getting it.  They just benefit if they already have the device.  Now you mentioned it's on iphone.  Are there any plans of bringing this to Android platform?  You knew that was coming, right?

Hans:  You see, I'm visually impaired myself, and I live in Denmark.  All the blind friends that I have, they use iphones.

Mark: Ok.

Hans: So that's the reason why we started with iphones.  But since the fifteenth of January, we have had 4,500 e-mails. 

Mark: That's amazing…

Hans: We try to answer those.  And I think almost a thousand of them is people asking when does this come to Android.  We are working on it.  I can't say anything yet.  We are open source, so if any…if you know any coders, they can go into GitHub.and search for Be My Eyes and they can contribute to this process. 

Mark: Oh, that's fantastic!

Hans:  We would be pleased if people could help us out.  It'll be really great.

Mark: That's something we could put out on our social media because we're connected to not only a lot of people who are savvy developers but also who would be interested and motivated, who are in the community…you know…accessibility community.

Hans: It's also important for those people to know that we are non-profit so we aren't getting any money out of it ourselves, and maybe that would motivate people to do an effort. 

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I'm sure we can get…  And speaking of that, speaking of social media, you said that this is launched on January 15.  It's interesting because I think I first saw this on… I may have.  I don't know if I saw this on Twitter, but I've definitely seen this on Twitter.  You kinda have an iconic picture of a gentleman with a beard holding an iphone up to his face with women's eyes, it looks like.  So it's already immediately recognizable to me. But I was sitting on the couch with my wife the other day who was going through her tablet and she handed it over to me to show me the same picture with Be My Eyes that she found on maybe Pintest or one of the things she was looking at.  So I was already amazed at how much social media…how much it's spread through social media.  Is that just going viral because what it is, or are you guys really pretty savvy at social media?

Hans:  You see, when we started on the 14th of January, we had been testing this in Denmark, and we had 150 blind people in Denmark and we had 400 volunteers.  And then, when we were finished testing, we decided that now it is good enough to put it out.  Then we start spreading the news in Denmark, and were lucky to get on national television in Denmark. 

Mark: Wow

Hans: And we made this Thunder Clap campaign when you ask…we managed to get 450 people to send out the same massage at the same time on the 15 at 12:00 in Denmark.  And then…I can't tell you how but somehow an American site called Product Hunt…they picked up the story.

Mark: Ok

Hans: And they made a little article about it., and this is one of the ways where you vote on them…you vote them up.  And we went straight to the top.  And we had three times more votes than number 2.  Then CheckFront, and Mashable, and Daily.dot and yeah, you name it—they picked up the story.  It just went totally crazy from there.  We had to change our servers three times. I was thinking we should…I should go out and ask my blind friends to spread the word and then in a few years we could kinda get it going.  But then more than I've dreamed of we should reach within a year or two—we've done it in two weeks.

Mark: Amazing.

Hans: So we are… And it's not we're good or clever.  I think it's a sweet story, and people find they can do something useful with their expensive iphones.  People just love this story, and they share it.  And we had this actor from New Girl, the main character there.  What's her name?

Mark: Zoe Zane?

Hans: Yeah, no… Zooey Dechant….Zooey Dechanel.  Zooey Deschanel?

Mark: Yes, that's right.

Hans: She tweeted about us.

Mark: Oh, wow.  She and her sisters are both actresses.  I know exactly who you are talking about.

Hans: And that story has been shared, I believe, 34,000 times or something like that. 

Mark: Wow.

Hans: So it's really powerful when those people, they start talking about something.

Mark: Well, I think it's so simple and elegant, and fits such a fantastic need.  You know what I mean?  It's such a great little service, and why not?  Using it makes people feel good…

Hans: it's easy how it works.  So that might be a reason why it has spread so..

Mark: Everybody wants to help everybody out.  I mean, we have big snowstorms here, and all the neighbors are outside helping each other shovel out, you know?  It's…it's community-based where people want to help, and this is another fantastic way for a community to get together and help each other.  So I think that's where..that's why it's so popular

Hans: it's tapped into something…let's say..that it's in the air right now.  Maybe it's also due to this financial crisis so people get together and help out…this sharing economy and so on.  I think we're a little part of that.

Mark: Well, I know in less than 60 days we, a small…an accessibility company in Massachusetts, caught a hold of this.  I published the story on our news feed.  We've tweeted about it, and our tweets have been shared and liked and so forth.  And then, of course, you and I are connected across the world here talking about it.  So I would say you've landed on something real good here, Hans.

Hans: It has been extremely funny and also hard.  We've been working like 20 hours a day for the last three weeks.

Mark: Well, you weren't ready for this.  Who would be?

Hans: But it's fun.  It's really fun.

Mark: Great. Well, listen, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.  I know you got a busy…a newly busy schedule with all the craziness it's created.

Hans: Thank you for having me on your show.

Mark: Yeah, you're welcome.  I know it's not easy for you to cart this kind of time out.  We really appreciate it.  We appreciate the product.  I think it's fantastic.  And I'll be back in touch with you when you guys have updates and stuff to it because we definitely want to make sure people are aware of this and keep them informed.

Hans: That'll be great.  And I can tell you that we have plenty of helpers.  So if you can get blind people who would consider using this app, that would be great.

Mark: Great…

Hans: I want every blind person to know about it so they can decide whether or not they want to use it.

Mark: And ifs the best way for them to reach out to you BeMyEyes.org?

Hans: Yes, it is.

Mark: ok, great.  So if you want to help out, if you have questions or anything like that for Hans, BeMyEyes.org, which is how we connected, is the place to go.  All right, thank you so much.

Hans: Thank you.

Mark: You're welcome.  This is Mark Miller thanking Hans and reminding you all to keep it accessible.

Announcer: The IAP Interactive Accessibility Podcast is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts.  You can find their Accessibility Matters blog at www.interactiveaccessibility.com/blog .

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