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IBM Scientists Develop Streaming Video For Visually Impaired

The tool lets users single out different sound sources, including screen readers, while the software allows for metadata to be read explaining what is happening on screen.

IBM announced a new tool on Tuesday that improves visually impaired people's access to streaming video and animation on the Internet.

The multimedia browsing accessibility tool hasn't been named yet but was developed in IBM's Tokyo research laboratory. Chieko Asakawa, a senior accessibility researcher at IBM who has been blind since the age of 14, spearheaded the development of the new software out of frustration with streaming video.

Traditionally, screen-reading software and self-talking browsers don't help bring online video to people who cannot see control buttons on a screen or access the buttons with a mouse. The audio, which automatically begins playing after a page opens, interferes with the sound of screen-reading software.

The new IBM tool lets people use smart keys, or shortcuts on their keyboards, instead of the visual control panel to adjust volume and playback. It also allows users to increase volume and audio speed, because audio from streaming video can seem excruciatingly slow to people with visual impairments.

The tool also allows users to single out different sound sources, including screen readers. The software provides the flexibility of metadata, which contains a text script explaining what is happening on screen, if content creators offer voice narratives.

Developers wrote the software primarily in Java. It supports Internet Explorer. It has been tested for the Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

"The new tool sits on top, so-to-speak, of a normal media player," Frances West, director of IBM's Worldwide Accessibility Center, said during an interview Tuesday. "It's really cool because it's from one of our own blind scientists, who got really frustrated by not being able to get access to media."

About four researchers developed the tool in three or four months. The tool is the first of its kind and offers a solution for rapidly changing technology on the Web, West said. IBM plans to demonstrate the tool soon and release it to the company's Open Source Consortium for further development.

"We hope to tap into the collective energy and the creative energy," West said, adding that IBM hopes to develop the innovation into a "super tool for the visually impaired."

IBM has developed other technologies for the visually impaired, including a talking browser and programs that help people with visual impairments adjust font sizes and color contrast on Web pages.

West said that IBM sees accessibility as an area where it can exercise social responsibility while also tapping into a business opportunity. According to the World Health Organization, more than 161 million people had visual impairments in 2002.

Assistive technologies target not only people who are born with impairments but also those who develop disabilities with age. That is a growing concern as baby boomers become senior citizens. According to WHO statistics, 82% of people with visual impairments are over age 50.

West said most people will have one disability -- usually visual -- by the time they reach 50, two by the time they reach 60 (often a hearing impairment), and mobility difficulties in their 80s.

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