Free, open source-based online service opens Web to the blind

A university-developed online service will let blind and visually impaired people surf the Web without having to download complex or buy costly client software.

Developed by University of Washington WebInsight researchers and released today, WebAnywhere is an open source-based tool that turns screen-reading into an Internet service that reads aloud Web text on any computer with speakers or headphone connections.

Free screen readers already exist, as do sophisticated commercial programs, researchers said, but all must be installed on a machine before being used. This is the first accessibility tool hosted on the Web, meaning it doesn't have to be downloaded onto a computer, researchers said.

WebAnywhere processes the text on an external server and then sends a 100K byte audio file to play in the user's Web browser.The driving idea behind WebAnywhere is that the software would make any computer in the lab instantly accessible for Internet duties.

The Web-based service also eliminates the need for local technical support: there is no software to install or update because each time a person visits the site he or she gets the latest version.Screen readers are expensive, costing nearly a thousand dollars for each installation because of their complexity, relatively small market and high support costs, researchers said. Development of these programs is complex because the interface with each supported program must be deciphered independently. As a result of their expense, screen readers are not installed on most computers, leaving blind users on-the-go unable to access the web from any computer that they happen to have access to and many blind users unable to afford a screen reader unable to access the web at all, researchers said.

Like other screen readers, WebAnywhere converts written text to an electronically generated voice. So far the system works only in English. But the source code was released a few weeks ago and a Web developer in China has expressed interest in developing a Chinese version, researchers said.

The University of Washington team plans to create updates that will let users change the speed at which the text is read aloud and add other popular features found in existing screen readers. The service is currently hosted on a server at the UW campus.

The university is also working with Benetech, a technology nonprofit groups that distributes free electronic books, to make its collection of more than 30,000 books accessible to blind users without them having to install any screen-reading software.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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

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