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Tools for the Blind to Do What a Guide Dog Can’t

T.V. Raman was a bookish child who developed a love of math and puzzles at an early age. That passion didn’t change after
glaucoma took his eyesight at the age of 14. What changed is the role that technology — and his own innovations
— played in helping him pursue his interests. A native of India, Mr. Raman went from relying on volunteers to read him textbooks at a top technical university there to leading a largely autonomous life in Silicon Valley, where he is a highly respected computer scientist
and an engineer at Google. Along the way, Mr. Raman built a series of tools to help him take advantage of objects or technologies that were not designed with blind users in mind. They ranged from a Rubik’s Cube covered in Braille to a software program that can take complex mathematical formulas and read them aloud. He also built a version of Google’s search service tailored for blind users.
Mr. Raman, 43, is working to modify the latest technological gadget that he says could make life easier for blind people: a touch-screen phone.
“He is a leading thinker on accessibility issues, and his capacity to design and alter technology to meet his needs is unique,” said Paul Schroeder,vice president for programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, which conducts research on technology that can help visually impaired people.
Some of Mr. Raman’s innovations may help make electronic gadgets and Web services more user-friendly for everyone. Instead of asking how something should work if a person
cannot see, he says he prefers to ask, “How should something work when the user is not looking at the screen?”
Such systems could prove useful for drivers or anyone else who could benefit from eyes-free access to a phone.
Mr. Raman said that with the right tweaks, touch-screen phones could help blind people navigate the world.
“How much of a leap of faith does it take for you to realize that your phone could say, ‘Walk straight and within 200 feet you’ll get to the intersection of X and Y,’ ” Mr. Raman said. “This is entirely doable.”
Mr. Raman shares a work area at Google with Charles Chen, a 25-year old engineer, and Hubbell, Mr. Raman’s guide dog. The two recently added keyboard shortcuts that help blind and low-vision users navigate quickly through Google’s search results. They’ve also
developed tools to make sophisticated Web applications, like e-mail and blog readers, suitable for screen-reading software, which turns documents and Web pages into synthesized speech.
Now, much of their effort is focused on touch-screen phones.
Mr. Raman and Mr. Chen, who is sighted, are working on ways to allow blind people, or anyone who is not looking at the screen, to enter text, numbers and commands.
What may become the most life changing mobile technology — a phone that can recognize and read signs through its camera — may still be a few years away, Mr. Raman said.
Already, some devices can read text this way. But because blind users don’t know where signs are, they can’t point the camera at them or align it properly, Mr. Raman said. Once chips become powerful enough, they will be able to detect a sign’s location and read skewed type, he said.
“Those things will happen,” he said.
When they do, sighted users will benefit,too. “If you have the technology that can recognize a street sign as you drive by it, that is helpful for everyone,”he said. “In a foreign country, it will translate it.”
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