Internet for Everyone

Interactive software conveys the richness of today’s online experience to the visually impaired.

Sam Jewell


There’s a compelling online video that shows how visually impaired people experience the Web. A robotic-sounding voice fires off a long list of phrases and words that includes “find out, turn off, click, link, button.” After about 16 seconds, you realize that Google’s search button has been located. The process is slow, repetitive, and frustrating. And astonishingly, this costly screen-reading software—which reads Web pages from top to bottom—is the best available option for the non-sighted.

Sam Jewell, a recent graduate of the Innovation Design Engineering program at London’s Royal College of Art, was convinced that computers had far more potential to be designed around human emotions and needs. One day he saw a video of a blind football team using a ball with a rattle in it, and it made him wonder if there was a way for a blind person to interact with digital information in as “intuitive and natural” a way as using one’s hearing to perceive a football.

For the next five months, Jewell spent many hours visiting blind and partially sighted people in order to create AudioWeb, fully interactive software that uses multiple voices, music, and sound effects to convey the online world. It works by lifting headline stories straight from a Web site, saving them onto the user’s computer, and turning them into speech. “All of these headlines and stories are presented in the computer interface such that the user can flick and choose between them, and speed them up or slow them down on the fly,” explains Jewell.

His first prototype relied on a mouse. He asked an elderly woman named Ivy, who has been blind since birth, to try it out. “Of course, never having seen a cursor, she had no concept of what the mouse looks like on-screen, and it didn’t work at all!” he says. “I quickly realized that it had to be navigable by keyboard alone, for the completely blind, as well as via the mouse, for the sighted and partially sighted.”

Now AudioWeb can also be controlled using a Nintendo Wii remote or an iPhone. Jewell is particularly pleased with the Wii version, as “it releases the user from their desk, and allows them to sit back and relax on their sofa.” The interface has recently been shortlisted for the 2011 James Dyson Award.

For the moment, AudioWeb only works on the BBC’s news and sports pages, but with time and funding, Jewell says it could be made to work across a broad range of Web sites. When asked why accessibility software is so woefully behind other technologies, his answer is straightforward: “The perception is that there is no money in it, and that there is little growth potential.” His solution is inclusive design: “Make products that are fantastic not just for those of us who are elderly or visually impaired, but for all of us.”!

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