March 12, 2007 2:24 PM PDT

IBM tool 'reads' Web video for blind

IBM has made a tool for Web browsers that will help the blind and visually impaired access streaming multimedia on the Web.

The tool, which works with Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Mozilla's Firefox Web browser, is designed to handle any file that is embedded in a Web site, including Adobe Flash or Windows Media files.

"Just because someone is blind, it doesn't mean they shouldn't be enjoying YouTube or MySpace or anything else like that," said Frances West, director of the Worldwide Accessibility Center for IBM.

The prevalence of audio on the Web seems like it would be an ideal addition for those with visual impairments, but it's not. Screen readers and talking Web browsers were designed mainly for translating text to voice and have yet to adjust functions to fully support multimedia, according to West.

When streaming audio or video requires users to click a Play button using their mouse, there is usually no keystroke alternative, and the controls are randomly placed on the screen, West said. If they can't press Play, they can't experience the multimedia.

In cases where the audio or video streams automatically once a page loads, the Web page's audio often interferes with a user's audio aids.

The multimedia browsing accessibility tool from IBM's Tokyo Research Laboratory will provide predefined shortcut keys to control multimedia on any given Web site. In addition to functions like Play and Rewind, users can control the volume and replay speed.

The tool will also read metadata, if the video creator includes it, that plays a screen narrative to describe what's going on in a given video. The function offers the same control as movies for the visually impaired. A person can select to listen to the original audio only or turn on the screen narration, according to West.

The tool, which IBM plans to make open source, will be showcased at next week's 2007 Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference.

The company's strategy is that software for the visually or hearing impaired--populations who have historically been neglected in terms of tech products--should be developed as a societal effort, according to West.

"I think that this is just one of many research innovations that you are going to see in this space...and not just for people with disabilities. With aging baby boomers in the U.S. at about 76 million, who will have vision or hearing deterioration, we think applications of the future need to take these users into consideration," West said.

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