New tool to make web browsing easier for the visually impaired


Scientists at the University of Waterloo, in collaboration with Microsoft and the University of Washington, have developed a new tool called Voice Exploration, Retrieval, and Search (VERSE), that allows people with visual impairments to get web content as quickly and as effortlessly as possible from smart speakers and similar devices.

The tool adds screen reader-like capabilities to virtual assistants and allows other devices, such as smartwatches, to serve as input accelerators to smart speakers.

Alexandra Vtyurina, a University of Waterloo Faculty of Mathematics student and lead author of the study, said, “People with visual impairments often rely on screen readers and increasingly voice-based virtual assistants when interacting with computer systems. Virtual assistants are convenient and accessible but lack the ability to deeply engage with content, such as read beyond the first few sentences of an article, list alternative search results and suggestions.”

“In contrast, screen readers allow for deep engagement with accessible content and provide fine-grained navigation and control, but at the cost of reduced walk-up-and-use convenience.”

The essential input technique for VERSE is voice; in this way, users can say “next,” “previous,” “go back,” or “go forward.” VERSE can likewise be paired with an application that keeps running on a cell phone or a smartwatch. These gadgets can fill in as input accelerators, like keyboard shortcuts. For instance, turning the crown on a smartwatch advances VERSE to the search result, section, or paragraph, contingent upon the navigation mode.

During the study, scientists surveyed 53 visually impaired web searchers. More than half of the respondents reported using voice assistants multiple times a day and a vast range of devices, for example, keen speakers, phones, and smart TVs.

Scientists then used the survey data to inform the design of a prototype of VERSE, after which a user study was conducted to gather feedback.

Vtyurina said, “At the outset, VERSE resembles other virtual assistants, as the tool allows people to ask a question and have it answered verbally with a word, phrase, or passage. VERSE is differentiated by what happens next. If people need more information, they can use VERSE to access other search verticals, for example, news, facts, and related searches, and can visit any article that appears as a search result.”

“For articles, VERSE showcases its screen reader superpowers by allowing people to navigate along with words, sentences, paragraphs, or sections.”

The study will be presented at the 21st International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, to be held in Pittsburgh.

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