IBM technology helps disabled surf the Web

Made in IBM Labs event also shows off Many Eyes site for putting data sets into visual forms

IBM last week demonstrated more than 20 new technologies, including several that make the Internet and offline applications more accessible to the disabled.

A technology called Easy Web Browsing helps the elderly, people with limited vision and the color-blind by reading text out loud and allowing users to customize the size and color of Web content.

Macy's Web page recently became one of more than 100 worldwide that use the technology, which allows users to download a tool that essentially replaces the standard Web browser when a shopper is logged onto Macys.com.

A task bar at the top of the screen allows users to zoom in and out, increase volume, or change the contrast between colors, which can help people who are color-blind. In addition to hearing text read aloud, a user can place a mouse over text and see it appear in larger format in a rectangle at the bottom of the screen.

The tool is not for people who are completely blind because it does require the use of a mouse, said John Evans of IBM Research, who demonstrated the technology Wednesday at an event called "Made in IBM Labs New England." Software such as JAWS for Windows, made by Freedom Scientific , enables the blind to surf the Internet without a mouse.

Easy Web Browser also provides sound effects for hyperlinks and can speak text in 12 languages, including Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish. Depending on the size of the installation, companies that use Easy Web Browsing on their sites pay between US$25,000 and US$250,000, Evans said. Clients began using the software last year, he said.

Another IBM technology demonstrated Wednesday uses algorithms to recognize dexterity problems that prevent disabled people from properly using a mouse or keyboard. The most common problem is the inability to lift a finger off a key quickly enough, causing a keystroke to be made multiple times, said Shari Trewin, a researcher at IBM's Watson Research Center .

Invisible Accessibility, which is in development and is not yet publicly available, recognizes this problem and creates a delay allowing a person with dexterity problems extra time to take their finger off the keyboard.

"The system automatically recognizes accessibility issues and changes the settings for you," Trewin said.

People with impaired dexterity also have problems using a mouse, because their hands may shake, causing the mouse to move while they are attempting to click on a link. Invisible Accessibility uses an algorithm to figure out which actions are deliberate and which are accidental, and filters out the mistakes, according to Trewin.

"The person using the mouse doesn't have to think of themselves having a disability," Trewin said.

The program can be run both on Web browsers and with offline applications.

IBM also demonstrated Many Eyes , a Web site a few months old that allows people to upload data sets or take data sets uploaded by other users and place them in visual forms, such as pie charts and bubble charts.

One chart shows by percentage the countries of residence of Second Life users. Another shows the fuel economy of various automobiles. One visualization uses "tag clouds" to analyze the frequency of words in poems by W.B. Yeats . Scrolling over a word brings up a cloud showing the user where Yeats used the word in his poetry.

Data sets range from the statistics of a sports team to the text of the bible and "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman.

"Most importantly, this is an experiment in collaborative visualization," said Irene Greif, an IBM fellow and director of collaborative user experience at IBM Research. "People can create visualizations, they can upload data sets. ... At any point, when you find something intriguing in the visualization, you can bookmark that, comment on it and share your insights or your questions with other people, and get answers."

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