Internet surfers say goodbye mouse, hello voice commands

University of Washington’s Vocal Joystick helps disabled navigate Web

University of Washington researchers have developed software designed to let those who can't work a handheld mouse use their voice instead to navigate the Web.

"There are many people who have perfect use of their voice who don't have use of their hands and arms," said Jeffrey Bilmes, an associate professor of electrical engineering, in a statement. "I think there are several reasons why Vocal Joystick might be a better approach, or at least a viable alternative, to brain-computer interfaces."

The Vocal Joystick detects sounds 100 times a second, relying on vowel sounds to move in one direction or another and moving faster or slower depending on voice volume. "K" and "ch" sounds are used for mouse clicks and releases. Some wonder why speech recognition technology might not be better, but the University of Washington researchers say it would be too slow since it would rely on drawn-out, discrete commands. (Watch a video of how Vocal Joystick works here.)

The tool can be used for Web browsing, as well as for playing video games and even drawing on a screen.

Other tools -- eye trackers, sip-and-puff devices and head-tracking systems -- also exist for enabling the disabled to take advantage of computers and the Internet. But University of Washington researchers say such offerings have limitations, whereas Vocal Joystick is easier to use. It requires only a microphone, a computer sound card and a user who can make sounds.

A group of people with spinal-cord injuries have been testing the tool, which is being discussed this month in at the Assets Conference on Computers and Accessibility.

Among companies active in developing Internet access technologies for the disabled is IBM. The disabled have targeted companies that have been Web accessibility-unfriendly, such as Target.

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