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Engineering for the blind: UC Berkeley student develops computer drawing, animation tool for the visually impaired
22 April 2002

By Sarah Yang, Media Relations

Berkeley - Frustrated by the lack of drawing and animation tools for the visually impaired, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, is developing a computer-drawing program that helps visually impaired users create and see images on the computer screen.

Hesham Kamel, a PhD student in the campus's Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, said 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," said 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," he said.

He will be presenting his IC2D software on Wednesday (April 24) at the 2002 Computer-Human Interaction conference of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), held in Minnesota. He will also present his research at the ACM Conference on Assistive Technologies held July 8-10 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Kamel said people would 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 said. "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 at UC Berkeley.

Landay said Hesham's IC2D software is a great start in fulfilling a demand by the visually impaired to create and communicate visual information with both blind and sighted people. "It has been amazing to see some of the drawings that Hesham's blind research participants have created," said Landay. "These are drawings they never could have made before."

The program works by dividing the computer screen into a 3-by-3 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 using a telephone keypad arrangement instead of pull-down menus, which are impractical for blind users. Using the familiar and intuitive keypad layout as the basis for the interface speeds up navigation, creating a better experience for the user, said Kamel.

"To help blind users see what I draw, I developed a technique to give the components of the picture a meaningful label," said Kamel. For instance, a picture of a car can include a label for the rear passenger wheel, which 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.

"When you look at technology, the trend is for things to get smaller, faster and cheaper," said Kamel. "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."

One of the primary characteristics of the IC2D, said Kamel, is that it is portable and compatible with any computer screen reader for the blind. "More than anything," said Kamel, "I want to change the way people think when they develop technology for the visually impaired."