MAR 6 1998

The Straits Times
New software may give Internet access to the blind

By R. Senthilnathan in Vienna

THE Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, has revolutionised information exchange for millions of people around the globe, but there are groups of people, like the blind, who are unable to enjoy the digital wonder of its graphics and text.

Now, thanks to a new software, they too can get on the Web.

The software is the heart of a pilot station installed at the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, 150 km west of Vienna.

It is a kind of a digital Mecca in Austria.

Developed jointly by a Germany-based university and Siemens Nixdorf, the Internet Work-Station for the Blind is mobile and comprises a now commonly-available notebook computer, a Braille keyboard, a synthetic voice output device and the special software.

The program, which its makers claim is the first of its kind in central Europe, works in rather simply: when the computer is connected to the Internet and downloads are made, the data is channelled to the software which converts it into Braille and presents to the user.

Conversely, inputs by the user are translated into the digital language.

One of the greatest -- and for some, the most frustrating -- aspects of the Web is its non-linear structure with links.

And whereas the normal user can see the underlined link tag where the cursor turns into a palm icon, the user with a visual handicap cannot do that.

The software, however, can translate the link tag into Braille.

Alternatively, said Mr Peter Schoeber of Ars Electronica Centre, the user can also adjust the system to receive a Braille impulse indicating a link.

But that is not all.

The user can configure the software to translate Web messages into audio messages to be expressed through the synthetic voice device.

However, the software, as it is in its present stage, cannot do the converse, that is, convert audio messages into computer or Web language. It can understand only a limited number of oral commands and translate those. The advantage of the system is that blind surfers can adjust the speed of the program to fit to their Braille capabilities, said Mr Schoeber.

The system has already received a resounding reception from the blind, but Ars Electronica Centre and Siemens Nixdorf plan to evaluate it to see where improvements can be made.

Among the areas for this are the voice quality, the translation facility from audio to digital format, as well as the capacity to understand graphics.

The program can be installed in a Pentium 166 MHz computer -- now almost the standard for multimedia applications -- with 32 mega bytes of RAM and one giga byte of hard disk capacity.

The only hiccup for now is that the station is very costly -- not because of the computer or the software which are cheap, but the Braille keyboard.

There are only a few manufacturers of the special keyboard in Europe, and on average, each costs about US$10,000 (S$16,500).