Considering how long trees have been around, it’s hard to believe dendrochronology, the practice of dating trees by their rings, wasn’t invented till the mid-1940s. “Anyone could have come up with that sooner,” Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a 51-year-old Denmark resident, says with a chuckle. “I kind of feel the same way.”
Wiberg is the co-founder of Be My Eyes, a Copenhagen-based non-profit that offers a free app enabling visually impaired people to enlist the aid of their sighted counterparts via iPhone. It debuted January 15, and proceeded to go viral on the Internet and on TV. (This week, in fact, it was featured on CBS News.) This so overloaded Be My Eyes’ server, it’s had to go through three upgrades thus far. As of this posting, the non-profit has more than 120,000 volunteers helping close to 11,000 blind people. “And we are connecting people in 80 different languages, which is totally amazing,” says Wiberg.
And, to his earlier point, totally obvious. The premise is simple. A blind or visually impaired person who needs help with a daily task—such as reading the expiration date on a milk carton or the departure board at a train station—contacts a sighted volunteer through the iPhone’s video chat and gets help immediately. Here’s Be My Eyes’ explanatory video:
But, as with most ingenious inventions, timing played a role.
Wiberg is no techie. After being diagnosed with Usher syndrome—which causes both hearing and vision loss—at age 25, he gave up plans to take over the family dairy farm. Instead, he studied for a degree in philosophy, got married, had kids and worked as an upholsterer in his wife’s furniture shop. He also volunteered at facilities for the blind and visually impaired.
Technology, meanwhile, was advancing at a breakneck pace and enabling the visually impaired to do things once thought impossible. Most recently, Wiberg was hearing from blind folks that they used FaceTime, an iPhone video-conferencing tool, to seek help with simple tasks from sighted people. But they also felt they were overburdening family, friends and neighbors with their constant requests.
“So I thought, ‘What if they could ask strangers—you know, volunteers—for help?’” Wiberg says. In 2012, he attended a Startup Weekend—an event that brings together budding entrepreneurs, designers and marketing experts to launch promising new products—and pitched his idea for an app. By the end of the weekend, he and a team of developers had won the prize for most innovative idea.
“We were fired up and spent almost a year raising the money,” Wiberg recalls. “From the start, we decided it should be a non-profit, so that everyone who needed it could use it.” A software team was hired, an office in Copenhagen was found, and, last month, Be My Eyes was released to the world.
What’s ironic is Wiberg, who once delivered a TED talk on the app, doesn’t need it himself. “Right now, I have 5, out of 180, degrees of vision left, so, even though I use a cane, my central vision is fairly good. I don’t need the app, but I will. My grandmother had the same condition, and she was in her middle or late sixties when she turned totally blind. I’m hoping I have 10 more years.”
Like millions of others affected by retinal diseases, he’s also hoping for the kinds of treatments and cures FFB is dedicated to making available eventually. “The first 20 years after I was diagnosed, I didn’t think about that,” he says. “But the last five years, I’ve been thinking, ‘Well, there might be a chance.’ The work with stem cells and the bionic retinas and the exponential growth in computer power—this will all move very fast over the next 10 years. We’re going to see things we didn’t imagine before.”
In the meantime, Be My Eyes is one of a growing number of apps the blind and visually impaired can utilize. And, in fact, Wiberg is hoping a lot more of them will. “We don’t have a shortage of volunteers at this point,” he says. “We have more than enough on that side. Now, we need to make every blind person aware of the app, so they can decide whether it’s something they can use.”
Photo, top: Hans Jørgen Wiberg, co-founder of Be My Eyes and inventor of the app. Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes.