Saturday, February 28, 2009

Interfaces for the Deaf and Blind Community

Most of us take for granted the kind of high technology and information at our fingertips: we use the internet everyday, use our laptops to take notes during class, engage in various social networking sites, virtual worlds and games. However, for a small (but significant) percentage of the population, computers and the internet have always been out of reach. The hearing- and visually-impaired live in a world filled with auditory and visual stimuli, and in these increasingly high-tech times they are largely excluded from new technological innovations. On the other hand, advances in technology have also led to developments in new technology that aids the visually- and hearing-impaired in navigating both the real and virtual worlds.

One example is e-Sullivan’s revolutionary computer for the deaf and blind, which converts web text into Braille and vice versa, and it also converts printed materials into Braille by scanning them. The device is small and handheld, and it provides an accessible way for deaf-blind people to interact on the internet. Another innovation for the blind comes from the vOICe Learning Edition, which “translates arbitrary video images from a regular PC camera into sounds.” In other words, you can map an image using a wide array of beeping sounds. The software can also be used with mobile phone cameras, making it easier to take advantage of the software in public. Recently, IBM released information regarding its Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind. As reported here, it “provides basic navigation, communication, and perception functions using GUI (graphical user interface) elements that are familiar to blind computer users." Detailed text and verbal descriptions of objects and places within the virtual world are provided by sighted users which are then annotated for use by blind users. IBM’s goal is to create a system that can be used across various platforms, saying "If successful, that portability would enable blind users to learn only one client application that is specifically tailored for their needs rather than learning a separate new application for each virtual world.”

It will be interesting to see what the future of technology has to offer the deaf and blind community. Hopefully the gap between the deaf and blind and the sighted will continue to be narrowed. As an aside, I am also very interested in any research that has been conducted on the deaf and blind community and their experiences with these new technologies.