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Scientists developed a new tool to make internet more accessible for the visually impaired

Posted August 26, 2019

Visually impaired face difficulty navigating the world and this does include the internet. Web provides us with necessary information and access to various services. Undeniably it is also a great source of entertainment. Good that scientists from the University of Waterloo, Microsoft Research and the University of Washington created a new tool making web browsing easier for the visually impaired.

Visually impaired face challenges trying to navigate through the streets, but also through the internet. Image credit: Schmeissnerro via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Blind and visually impaired people are actually using the internet probably as much as healthy people. However, for them it is rather difficult and time consuming. The goal of creating the new tool, called Voice Exploration, Retrieval, and Search (VERSE), was to make web content available as as quickly and as effortlessly as possible from smart speakers and similar devices. As you might imagine, the core of this software are voice assistant. In fact, scientists attempted to merge the best features of voice assistants and screen readers together, creating a tool, which makes free-form web searches easier. This should be a great improvement on what is available today.

Visually impaired are now using voice assistants and screen readers separately, which is far from ideal. Alexandra Vtyurina, leader of the research, said: “Virtual assistants are convenient and accessible but lack the ability to deeply engage with content, such as read beyond the first few sentences of an article, list alternative search results and suggestions. In contrast, screen readers allow for deep engagement with accessible content, and provide fine-grained navigation and control, but at the cost of reduced walk-up-and-use convenience”.

VERSE takes advantage of other smart devices, such as smart watches and phones, to speed up the process – they serve as input accelerators. Users can use voice commands, such as “next”, “previous”, “go back” or “go forward”, but their smart devices can also serve as means for input. For example, rolling a smart watch could help jumping down a paragraph or two.

Scientists surveyed 53 visually impaired web searchers. Half of them reported using voice assistants multiple times a day as well as a wide range of smart devices. VERSE merges those capabilities. It can help people scroll through web pages, but it can also answer questions just like any other virtual assistant. And then it can read whatever is on the screen. 

VERSE is still in a prototype stage, but it will become available sooner or later. Modern technologies should make life easier for everyone, especially for those who face certain physical challenges. VERSE could help visually impaired staying more informed or even study something.


Source: University of Waterloo

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