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Q&A: IBM seeks to make streaming media accessible to visually impaired

Researcher Chieko Asakawa wants all Web users to 'see' multimedia content

By Todd R. Weiss
March 26, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - IBM researcher Chieko Asakawa has been blind since she was 14 years old. Since joining IBM in Japan in 1985, she has worked on myriad projects to improve accessibility for the visually impaired. Asakawa, now a senior accessibility researcher at IBM's Tokyo Research Laboratory, has been working on nonvisual computer interfaces in an effort to improve Web accessibility and usability for the visually impaired and others with special needs. She helped develop the IBM Home Page Reader in 1997 and a digital Braille system and three key applications, including a Braille Editing System to allow users to easily input and edit Braille using an ordinary keyboard and monitor. In 2004, she and her team also previewed a disability simulator that helps Web designers ensure that their pages are accessible and usable by visually impaired users. And over the last year, she and a team of four researchers have been working to make it possible for blind and visually impaired users to access multimedia content online, using a keyboard to control media player software. She discussed her work last week via e-mail from Tokyo.

Excerpts from that interview follow:

IBM researcher Chieko Asakawa IBM researcher Chieko Asakawa
As a visually impaired researcher and active Internet user, was this project motivated by your personal situation -- knowing that all kinds of Web content was out there that you and other visually impaired people couldn't access? Increasingly, I have been facing difficulties where I simply could not access Web content easily. I recently conducted a survey and found that most of the tested Web sites with multimedia content were not accessible. Based on this result and my personal experience, I fear that if we don't take any action, it will broaden the digital gap between the sighted and the blind. Today, accessibility for static HTML has been well established in various aspects, including technical, guidelines and regulations. And indeed, static Web contents have helped us narrow the gap. I felt that there should be ways to help narrow the gap concerning multimedia content's accessibility.

The tool set provides the user with keyboard-controlled ways to run some media player applications, such as starting the video, stopping it, rewinding it, etc.? Without the tool set, these functions can't be controlled with a keyboard? The tool is compatible with Windows Media Player and Flash. Users only need to know a unified shortcut key operation to run video and animation. Previously, these functions could not be controlled by using a keyboard since the images that are up on the Web sites are only controllable by pointing and clicking a mouse, especially for embedded players in Web pages. Only very rarely, there might be a case where there are play/stop and volume up/down buttons that can be operated with a keyboard. However, it is hardly possible to find out the existence of such buttons while video is playing due to conflicts with screen reading software.



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