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A Blind Researcher Takes Aim at the Future of Accessible Tech

Categories: Assistive Technology, Blind or Visually Impaired

Blind tech researcher Sina BahramA blind Ph.D. student studying computer science at North Carolina State University, Sina Bahram is doing innovative research to take human-computer interaction to the next level. He’s working on an application for eyes-free exploration of graphical information that he hopes will change the way people interact with devices, and will facilitate collaboration between individuals with visual impairments, like himself, and their sighted peers. In a recent interview with us, Mr. Bahram shared details about his research, an insight into the exciting future of accessible technology, and a bit about his personal history with Learning Ally. Bahram’s interest in accessible technology has been piqued for as long as he can remember, even tracing back to when he was a young student trying to decipher how Learning Ally’s audiobook cassette recordings provided tones for page and chapter indication. He used audiobooks extensively through middle school, taking a multisensory approach to reading science textbooks by reading braille and listening to the audio at the same time. Then throughout high school and undergraduate school, he incorporated increasingly sophisticated technologies into his toolbox. His interest in accessible tech and computers as an instrument for his personal success developed into a desire to research and design future generations of technology, which is exactly what he is working on now. Sina Bahram holding tablet deviceThe system he’s developing is called TIKISI, which stands for touch it, key it, speak it, referring to the fact that there are multiple ways of accessing the information, which is known as a multimodal interface. This means you’re using different types of interactions—both touch and speech—to give and get information from the computer. “This technology can obviously have a lot of benefit for someone who’s blind,” Bahram says. “But there’s also the principle of universal design here. The application could be useful for anyone. Think about driving a car and not having to look at a touch screen in order to use it.” TIKISI has particular value to STEM subjects, which make frequent use of maps, charts, graphs, diagrams, and other visual representations of data, because it uses multi-modal interaction. “One of the first applications of TIKISI is an overlay for Google Maps,” Bahram explains. “I was tired of opening a map and hearing nothing from my screen reader. The TIKISI application registers where you’re touching the map and reads back information. There are multiple overlays to switch between depending on what information you want to hear, for example, city names or coordinates. The screen is very sensitive, so you can get highly detailed feedback and use a variety of gestures to trigger different responses. There is also a user-controlled grid that can be dialed in or out to give more or less pinpointed information.”
"It would be a big step forward if blind people no longer had to depend on niche products."
This level of interactivity has yet to be seen in mainstream devices. “Current accessible technologies have made a lot of progress in recent years, but haven’t yet fully evolved for modern interfaces. For example, the screen-reader and related accessibility features built into Apple devices work great for text and standard user interface components but lack the ability to interactively navigate images. Incorporating more concepts from human-computer interaction research is the next logical step in the evolution of accessible tech.”   Working in the rapidly changing world of technology, part of Bahram’s job is to anticipate what the next major developments and trends will be, and then to help implement them. He’s optimistic about future technologies and their implications for the visually impaired.   “In the next five years, I foresee an accelerated integration between our everyday lives and the technologies we use. If you go back, telephones used to be wired to the house; then they were mobile and you were able to carry them around, but they were still primarily telephones. Then when smartphones entered the market, we were able to take the internet with us. Now technology like Apple’s SIRI is ubiquitous, where people can ask simple questions of their devices. It’s not to the point where people can speak normally and conversationally with their devices, but this tech is improving. I think people are going to get more and more comfortable interacting with technology in a direct and personalized way.” Sina Bahram at the White House Champions of Change event in 2012 Bahram also believes the paradigm of how and where we use computers will change. “We’re seeing the form factor of technology evolve. Currently, so much of our mobile human-computer interaction is centered around phones. Now things like Google Glass, a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display, are being developed. Google Glass has great potential to help the blind population. I encourage Google and others to consider accessibility when making design and policy decisions in the future. This new wave of accessibility-aware mobile devices could easily help with real-time face detection, street level navigation, barcode scanning, and so much more. I think having your computer help you with things in the real world is going to be the main focus in tech over the next five years.”   As it continually advances, accessible technology can greatly help blind people secure employment and collaborate with their sighted peers.

"As more eyes-free, interactive technology is incorporated into mainstream devices, collaboration between individuals with visual impairments and their sighted peers will become a reality.”

“Underemployment is a problem we’ve had for a while. Underrepresentation of blind people in the STEM fields, for example, is an issue that a lot of folks have been concentrating on. I’m hoping technology like TIKISI will help by bringing earlier access to blind kids, before they’re turned off of math and science. Another aspect is interaction with technology. Currently, it’s difficult for blind students and professionals to collaborate with their sighted peers, simply because they can’t access tools and equipment in the same way. This is why, moving forward, it’s important for mainstream devices to be accessible. If you can use the necessary tools, you’re much more employable because there are not all of those immediate obstacles. So I would say the solution lies in education—that might be cliché, but there’s 100 percent truth in it—accessible tools, and incorporating universal design into mainstream technology. It would be a big step forward if blind people no longer had to depend on niche products.”As both a successful professional in a fast-paced tech field and a blind person, Bahram has some sound advice for young blind and visually impaired students who are interested in STEM careers. “Go for it. A STEM career pays great, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it is a huge space in which you get to compete on the merit of what you’re able to do, rather than on what you’re not able to do. We’re moving towards this intellectual economy where it’s going to matter more what you can do, and how you can use machines and technology, which is all in your brain.” Pertinent to both the classroom and the workplace, Bahram says, “Technology is a really good game leveler. In the digital world, there are always opportunities to make things accessible. As more eyes-free, interactive technology is incorporated into mainstream devices, collaboration between individuals with visual impairments and their sighted peers will become a much easier reality.” To contact or learn more about Sina and his research, visit his website at www.SinaBahram.com; read his blog at blog.SinaBahram.com; follow him on Twitter @SinaBahram, or email him at Sina@SinaBahram.com.

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