[AI] Virtual worlds open up to blind

vishnu ramchandani vishnuhappy at yahoo.com
Wed Sep 19 02:28:46 EDT 2007


Virtual worlds open up to blind

By Geoff Adams-Spink 
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website 

IBM is establishing a presence in virtual worlds

Online virtual worlds could soon be accessible to
blind people thanks to research by students at IBM in
Ireland. 

Some estimates predict that 80% of active internet
users will be using a virtual world in four years'
time. 

The company said that it is keen to ensure that blind
people are not excluded from an environment that
sighted people will take for granted. 

The students have designed an audio equivalent of the
virtual world using 3D sound to create a sense of
space. 

They were working as part of the company's Extreme
Blue research initiative which brings groups of
students together for 12 weeks to solve problem set by
senior researchers. 

The project - called Accessibility In Virtual Worlds -
is what the company describes as "a proof of concept"
at this stage, but it will be passed on to
IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Centre in Texas
for further development. 

For their work the Irish team decided to use the
Active Worlds online environment rather than the more
popular Second Life (which has almost 9.5m accounts)
because it allowed them more flexibility. 

Active Worlds is a collection of user-made virtual
worlds that people can visit via a web browser
plug-in. Like many other virtual spaces they let
people
make many of the artefacts, including buildings, found
in them. 

Audible cues 

The research team exploited this ability to tinker
with objects in the online world to make it more
hospitable to the blind. 

"When the user comes into the world, the items are
described as well as their positions," explained Colm
O'Brien, one of the team of four researchers who
worked on the project. 

"There is also sound attached - for example, if
there's a tree nearby you will hear a rustling of
leaves," said Mr O'Brien. 

The work also developed tools which uses text to
speech software that reads out any chat from fellow
avatars in the virtual world that appears in a text
box. 

Characters in the virtual world can have a "sonar"
attached to them so that the user gets audible cues to
alert them to when they are approaching, from
which direction and how near they are. 

A number of blind mentors have given advice and
feedback to the team - one in IBM's Dublin lab and two
based at IBM's research centre in Texas. 

The students have also liaised with the National
Council for the Blind of Ireland on their work. 

As well as proving that the idea is feasible, the team
has made a number of recommendations about
accessibility standards for virtual worlds which
should
help the developers of the future. 

"IBM believes that virtual worlds are going to be the
next big evolution of the web and if this
happens...it's not right for blind people to be
missing
out on what the rest of us have available," said Mr
O'Brien 


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