A Blind Users Interaction With Technology Computer Science Essay

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Blind people have varying degrees of visual impairment. They can be of low vision or partial vision due to which special visual devices are designed to help them see. This assignment presents how visually impaired people interact with their surroundings and how they use available artefacts and technology. Their four preferences are identified; Independence, Control, Efficiency and Portability. Then these four preferences are measured within the available technologies; which are tactile surfaces to read Braille, Screen Readers, Computer/Book magnifiers and GPS devices. A thorough analysis is done on the four types of technologies to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1 Introduction

"Blindness is the condition of lacking visual perception due to physiological or neurological factors." [2]

When discussing about individuals with low vision, it is important to clarify some of the terminology. Blindness is frequently used to describe severe visual impairment with residual vision. The term, low vision/partial vision, refers to individuals with significant reduction in visual function that cannot be corrected by conventional glasses but which may be improved with special aids or devices. It is important to note that persons having this type of condition are not blind and some are capable of reading text provided that there is adequate lighting, contrast, and magnification. Low vision individuals have various conditions such as sensitivity to light, colour-blindness, narrow vision, or extreme nearsightedness which causes visual impairment.

There are many devices and software designed by sighted people to aid the blind. These devices and software are made to make low vision individuals feel comfortable within the mainstream of sighted people. "Sighted technology designers may unwittingly create interfaces with the wrong affordances or that are dissonant with a user's personal preferences, resulting in task failure."[1] Hence, to be certain that these devices help them to progress with the fast moving technology-based society, their usability methods and interaction with technology needs to be understood fully.

Observations done of visually impaired in their familiar surroundings with existing technologies helps identify how they work together with available artefacts and technology.

2 Usability of devices

Many sighted designers have done observations on how blind/low vision people interact with their surroundings and environment. Many interesting analyses were drawn from these studies. Most of the visually impaired do not like to make their weakness obvious and prefer to use non-verbal devices as oppose to talking devices, to get information and feedback about commands. They prefer using tactile wrist watch as talking digital watch catches attention. Being part of the sighted mainstream is a reason why low vision persons are very much attached to their mobile devices to send and receive phone calls. Many mobiles have been designed with protruding buttons which brighten up when pressed making it a bit easier to locate the numbers. Another device mostly used to help remember stuff is the Braille labeller. They use this to label practically everything around their homes from the buttons on a microwave, kitchen utensils to their collection of music CDs. Many times, while performing tasks, they tend to get disoriented and find workarounds to accomplish their tasks. For example if forgotten where a particular CD is located then they have to do a linear search by picking out each CD and reading the Braille on them until the desired CD is found. It gets frustrating for them but once accomplished it gives them a sense of independence as they did not have to ask others for help. Blind people are concerned about four things when using everyday artefacts or interactive devices designed specially for them. They require Independence, Control, Efficiency and Portability. [1]

2.1 Independence

Observational analysis showed that visually impaired people try to tackle issues by trial and error. They prefer trying various ways on their own until they reach the solution. They commute by taxis rather then asking relatives or friends for transportation. They enjoy using objects that are designed to support their ability to be self-sufficient and not require sighted help. [1] Such as, the mobile phone, to communicate with others, which is used commonly by everyone.

2.2 Control

Design of interactive devices should be able to give them significant control over factors that help them to carry out their tasks. They should be given many functions that allow switching between different interactions modes. [1] For example, design a tactile watch that also has a talking functionality which allows setting the alarm on it.

2.3 Efficiency

Lack of vision makes it more important for low vision persons to be able to interact with the surroundings resourcefully. Being disoriented while looking for something is often time consuming and frustrating. For example when looking for a particular CD, person has to pick out each CD and read the Braille label.

2.4 Portability

Visually impaired resent carrying bulky devices as it shows their weakness. Many of the Braille devices are big and heavy. They prefer small, light and easy to carry devices which can easily be carried in their pockets or bags. That is the reason behind their strong liking towards mobile phones.

3 Interaction with technology

The most popular screen reader software "Job Access With Speech" (JAWS) is mainly used by the visually impaired. An observational interview was conducted to understand and identify how they interact with human-computer interactive devices. [1] JAWS screen reader basically works with Windows operating system. Low vision persons use JAWS to help them use their software applications on the computer. Some of the tasks done using this software are to read their emails, browse the internet, instant messaging (e.g. MSN), download music, backup CDs, etc. While using JAWS if the user was not able to comprehend or clicked a wrong command they would try it several times before starting the task all over again. Many times they would quit doing a certain command if it was not important to them as their frustration level is high and doing a simple task would take them more time then a sighted person. Overall, this observation clearly showed that visually impaired people also require being comfortable while using technology.

4 Devices and software available

There are many devices and software designed for the blind/low vision people. From the many methods of interaction with computers, Braille is used very rarely. Most low vision people prefer just to use a computer with screen enhancing software to help magnify the display as well as change the colour contrast of the background and text for better reading on the screen. Blind/Low vision individuals also make use of voice recognition and audio options when interacting with a computer. Many of the young, visually impaired, use special GPS devices to find their way around the city or locality they reside in. There are many tools/software which converts text on websites to Braille giving blind people the possibility to access the same information as sighted people. Unfortunately, as web pages get more and more complex the information is not only presented in text but also with graphics. Screen readers extract the textual information and output it on Braille display or voice output. So any kind of graphical information is not accessible by them. [3] Many of the pros and cons of these several devices will be looked in depth in this assignment.

4.1 Tactile surfaces to read Braille

Although many of the young blind/visually impaired people prefer using newer technologies for web browsers, there are some who still prefer using the Braille system to learn, read and write. From among many, we shall look at three different Braille systems in detail. Moreover, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages each system carries.

4.1.1 Braille Watch

The Braille watch is very quiet, discreet and efficient in telling time unlike the talking watches that draw attention towards the visually impaired. [1] Not wanting to stand out in a crowd of sighted people, a Braille watch is preferred. It is also liked for its creative and comfortable texture as opposed to a digital talking watch. [see Figure 1]

Even though the Braille watch is convenient and the feel of it is acknowledged by the blind/visually impaired, there is a drawback in the design. There is no option of setting up an alarm. For that, low vision persons have to rely on a digital talking watch. Carrying two watches at a time becomes tedious and confusing especially with visual disability. Also, the physical makeup of the Braille watch is very delicate that the glass cover can easily crack and the users have complained how the batteries do not last very long. [1] Leaving them quiet disoriented and frustrated.

Figure 1. Braille watch with retractable glass cover and tactile numbers and hands [1]

4.1.2 BrailleNote

BrailleNote is like a chorded keyboard, which can be hooked up to a computer or any hand-held device. Instead of English alphabets and numerals the keys on it are in Braille. It is able to read text and then display it into Braille or output with voice. [1] The option of choosing Braille output or voice output gives the visually impaired control over the functionalities. They can choose to use voice output when they are alone and choose Braille output when other people are around.

Although reading books and taking notes via BrailleNote is very convenient, it lacks storage space. It only has a floppy disk which is not very large storage for documents. It also does not have internet access. Due to this, visually impaired have to purchase a laptop separately for excess memory and to use the internet, check emails, browse the net, etc. Carrying a bulky BrailleNote device [see Figure 2] and a laptop together is quiet heavy. Another drawback in this device is that although BrailleNote can read text it is not able to interpret any graphical information.

Figure 2. BrailleNote [1]

4.1.3 Tactile Browser

To be able to help visually impaired take most of the information out of the webpage, text and graphics, the tactile browser was created. It was produced using different algorithms that "were implemented to reduce the resolution to fit the dimensions of the tactile display and to convert to monochrome colors." [3] There is a function called "exploration mode" built-in to the browser which helps low vision people explore all the graphics on a particular webpage. [3] To handle rows and columns of a table on the web, another algorithm was implemented. This algorithm aided in avoiding horizontal scrolling of the page and also obtains the right size of the text and the graphics on the webpage. Hence all the text and images are displayed in rows and columns fitting the tactile display screen [see Figure 3]. Making it effortless for the visually impaired to surf the World Wide Web.

Unfortunately, this browser tool is not perfect for the visually impaired to be confident using it. It does not work on any random web pages. If the page has navigation bars that run on JavaScript or form fields, this browser does not support it.

Figure 3: Layout boxes for a single image and a text paragraph that flows around the image [4]

4.2 Screen readers

Another form of aid for the blind is the text recognized speech. This makes computer learning for them easier and fun. There are many ranges of text to speech software out in the market these days. From basic screen readers on which you have to input the text manually for it to read it out, to more advanced software which would read out the list in menu bars, icons, instantly read printed text and also help with spelling and finding words. [5] Among the many screen readers, we shall look at two very popular ones.

4.2.1 JAWS

This software has a speech synthesizer which has been modified with time to have the voice sound like a real human being. [8] This helps the blind understand the words and commands clearly, as hearing is their dominant sense. This software's current version has been refined with time to be compatible with all your Microsoft (Office Suite, MSN Messenger, Corel WordPerfect, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Internet Explorer, and Firefox) and IBM (Lotus Symphony and Lotus Notes) applications. [7] It basically is able to read out all the software that is currently being used within businesses and schools. This encourages the blind/visually impaired to be able to pursue higher education and careers in the work force. It also helps blind people by reading out their desktop icons, helps them to find the internet browser on their computer and then read all the links on the web page. [6]

One of the biggest challenges of using a screen reader is proper orientation and navigation. [1] If by any chance the user moves away to do another task or accidentally presses a wrong command, it would take them to a completely new window/task, causing disorientation. The user would have to start everything from the beginning which is time consuming and frustrating.

4.2.2 Supernova

Similar to JAWS, this device can read out text, graphics, menu bars, lists, links, etc. In addition to that it also has an option to display text into Braille output. It also gives a choice for the text to be read in different languages. This software can easily be installed into a USB Pen and be carried around easily. Its size is just about 6-7cms and very light in weight. Users could connect the USB to any PC running windows and their installed and set up features would run on the computer. [9][10] Supernova is very easy to use as all the options are just one click away. [see Figure 4]

The only drawback to this software is that it is only compatible to a PC that runs Windows XP or Windows 2000.

Figure 4, Supernova Control Panel [9]

4.3 Computer/Book magnifiers

Majority of the text magnifiers for reading computer screen and books are designed for people with low vision or partial vision. People with total blindness are not considered when designing such software or devices.

4.3.1 Supernova

This software as mentioned above can be carried on a USB Pen and connected to any PC computers running the Windows Operating System. This software can increase the size on the screen up to 32 times the normal font size and the text when magnified is smooth and clear. [9] Gives user options on how much magnification they require depending on their vision. It also gives about 20 high contrast colour options. [10] [see Figure 4]

This software will only run on Windows XP and Windows 2000. Not good for users with older Windows Operating Systems or Mac.

4.3.2 Easy Bar

Figure 5, Easy Bar Interface [11]

As seen in Figure 5, Easy Bar is a toolbar on the web browser. It can change the size of texts and images by zooming in and out. It also has different options to adjust the color, giving the user option to make their own colour contrast of the text and the background. The icons of this tool bar are large enough that the visually impaired can click buttons and pull down lists with ease. [11] This toolbar is great in achieving the desired font size, text colour and able to click the large icons easily.

The only short come of Easy Bar is that it can only be used with Microsoft's Internet Explorer Browser. Hence, the blind/visually impaired cannot experience Firefox, Mozilla or any other internet browsers.

4.3.3 ZoomText

Similar to other screen magnification software, ZoomText can magnify and enhance the colour of text/background on the screen. It can magnify up to 36 times the normal font. In addition to that it has the functionality to read out the documents with a clear, human-like voice, which helps to rest the eyes. The new version of ZoomText is also available on a small size; light weighted USB Pen, ready to be used with any PC running Windows Operating System. [12] Therefore, ZoomText screen magnifier can be carried anywhere, giving the visually impaired a complete feel of being independent and in control of their internet use.

ZoomText can only be used with MS Windows systems. Any visually impaired wanting to use Mac computers are at a disadvantage.

4.4 GPS Device

Blind/visually impaired have been using the white cane to find their way around their area of residence, sometimes needing assistance from others while crossing a street. A system called "Crosswatch" [13] is designed especially for the blind/visually impaired to walk on the street with independence. "It uses computer vision technology to provide information about crosswalks to a blind/visually impaired pedestrian holding a portable camera. The system runs in real time, automatically taking a few images per second, using the cell phone's built-in computer to analyze each image in a fraction of a second and sound an audio tone when it detects a crosswalk. By moving the cell phone left and right, the user can determine if a crosswalk is visible and if so, align themselves to it." [13] There is no hassle for them to carry this device as it's a mobile phone that they already carry and this system can be easily installed on to any kind of a mobile. The mobile phone is a mainstream product [13] which will give the blind/visually impaired the confidence to carry it.

A shortfall of this system is that it only detects crosswalks and does not give information about any traffic lights (e.g. "Walk" signals) or any information on the layout of the intersection. [13] Hence, the blind/visually impaired persons have to still carry the white cane in one hand. Basically, their concern of not standing out in the mainstream of sighted people is not completely fulfilled with this system.

5 Conclusion and Critical Analysis

In the assignment, observational studies were conducted with the blind/low vision people to clearly understand what the meaning of usability and interaction with technology is for them. In those studies the visually impaired demonstrated their preferences to use devices/software which made them independent, gave them control and efficiency with tasks/activities and was small and light to carry around. All the designers kept those preferences in mind when creating devices/software. After looking at various research studies and at some of the most popular devices/software available in the market, in detail, it clearly showed that regardless how many interviews and observational studies would be conducted the design would still come short of some functionality. In my opinion, sighted designers should have focused on a particular demographic or age group when designing. As older people have different preferences then younger people (in the case of reading Braille) and older people are mostly not fond of changing their habits or learning new technologies.