Engineering for the blind
Student develops tool for the visually impaired

By Sarah Yang, Public Affairs



Hesham Kamel (seated, above) developed a software program that enables blind computer users to create and view graphics that both they and sighted people can interpret. His efforts were overseen by his adviser, James Landay, assistant professor of computer science.
Noah Berger photo

21 August 2002 | Frustrated by the lack of drawing and animation tools for visually impaired computer users, a campus student is developing a computer-drawing program that helps blind and low-vision users create and see images on the screen.

Hesham Kamel, a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, says he hopes to take his software prototype — Integrated Communication 2 Draw, or IC2D — beyond its research state and refine it into a commercially viable product.

“There’s nothing else out there that can help me create and view graphics,” says Kamel, who lost his sight 17 years ago in a surgical accident. “With the IC2D, blind people can use screen readers paired with voice synthesizers to literally hear text on the computer screen.”

Kamel says people frequently ask him why blind people would need to draw something they couldn’t see. “There are many people out there who can’t understand that blind people have imaginations, just as sighted people do,” he says. “For me, it’s all about independence.”

Kamel developed the program with the guidance of his thesis advisor, James Landay, assistant professor of computer science.

Landay says Hesham’s IC2D software is a great start in helping the visually impaired create and communicate visual information to both blind and sighted people. “It has been amazing to see some of the drawings that Hesham’s blind research participants have created,” says Landay. “These are drawings they never could have made before.”

The program works by dividing the computer screen into a three-by-three grid numbered like a telephone keypad. As the cursor moves from square to square, audio feedback — both voice and non-voice — signals location points back to the user. To create more “points” for more detailed images, each of the nine cells on the grid can be repeatedly divided for a total of 729 cells.

Commands, shapes, lines, and color are all controlled on the “keypad” or “palette,“ rather than by traditional pull-down menus, which are impractical for blind users. Using a familiar and intuitive keypad layout as the basis for the interface speeds up navigation, creating a better experience for the user, says Kamel.

“To help blind users see what I draw, I developed a technique to give the components of the picture a meaningful label,” he explains. For instance, a picture of a car can include a label for the right rear wheel, which itself may include labels for a silver hubcap and the black rubber tread. Users can get as detailed as they want. Hearing the labels with reference to the grid allows blind people to better conceptualize the whole image.

With a newly added animation feature, blind people can use three types of motion commands — move, rotate, and toggle — on an animation palette to animate their drawings. They can also add sound to the mix.

“When you look at technology, the trend is for things to get smaller, faster, and cheaper,” Kamel says. “That hasn’t been true for technology for the blind. The devices we need to use computers — such as a 50-pound Braille printer — are large, expensive, or both.”

Kamel notes that the IC2D is both portable and compatible with any computer-screen reader for the blind. “More than anything,” he says, “I want to change the way people think when they develop technology for the visually impaired.”


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