Chieko Asakawa, a blind researcher at IBM's Research Laboratory in Tokyo, could imagine no reason whatsoever why visually impaired people should be devoid of the enormous source of information the World Wide Web provides to computer users. This logical reasoning meant the start for the design of Home Page Reader for Windows, a new software tool to access the Internet through speech technology. The talking Web browser is able to read aloud the information, located at any selected Web site. The first version has been developed in the Japanese language but Home Page Reader will become available in English at the beginning of January 1999.
Since the talking Web browser initially "saw the light" thanks to the experience of a blind researcher, the user-friendly programme perfectly corresponds to the special needs of visually disabled people. Home Page Reader offers an efficient way to quickly navigate the Internet thanks to the fast-forward skim reading feature. Surfing the information highway has become as effortless a job for a blind person as for a normally sighted one. As such, the talking Web browser constitutes the latest asset in a family of IBM products which turn the computer into an easier accessible tool for the people with disabilities.
The English version of the Home Page Reader is based on ViaVoice OutLoud United States English text-to-speech technology, developed by IBM, as well as on Netscape Navigator. The information provided by the Web is read out in a complete, clear and excellently understandable format. The software runs on Microsoft Windows95, Windows98, and Windows NT, requiring a memory capacity of respectively 32MB Random Access Memory (RAM) for the first two environments, and 64MB RAM for the latter. Additionally, the user needs 7MB of hard disk space and a supplementary 10MB in order to install Netscape Navigator. The ideal set-up for the Home Page Reader would be a 150MHz Pentium with MMX or a system with equivalent features.
The talking Web browser has no difficulty interpreting Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) tags, which are used for the design of Web pages. As a result, blind users receive accurate translations of text, tables, data fields, text in column format and graphic descriptions. The tool comprises a simple 10-key numeric keypad interface to interact with the computer. A clever solution has been invented to distinguish between the various types of Web page information. A male voice is used to read out the text while a female voice interprets the links.
In addition, Home Page Reader equally offers access to a spoken on-line help function which also provides tips on how to use the numeric keypad. Useful bookmarks can be saved and organized in a very effective manner whereas an integrated e-mail service facilitates the contact for the blind user with his family, friends and business associates. The talking Web browser will be sold at the price of $149 and supplementary user licenses can be purchased at $129 the piece. Nothing will stop the blind computer addict from listening to the Internet. For more news on Web access for blind people, we refer to the Primeur magazine article Braille display lets blind people surf the Web.