Allen School Ph.D. student Venkatesh Potluri has earned a 2019 Google Lime Scholarship, which recognizes and supports students with disabilities who demonstrate the qualities of leadership, commitment to academic excellence, and passion for computer science and technology. Potluri, who is blind, is in his first year at the Allen School working on human-computer interaction (HCI) and accessibility research as a member of both the Makeability Lab and Make4All Group.
While most fledgling Ph.D. students ease into research in their first year, Potluri has initiated two research projects in his short time at the University of Washington. For the first, Potluri is collaborating with his advisors, Allen School professors Jon Froehlich and Jennifer Mankoff, to develop new techniques for enabling blind programmers to develop and test user interfaces (UIs). Through a combination of semi-structured interviews and online surveys of individuals with visual impairments, the team aims to gain a better understanding of how individuals with visual impairments engage with the spatial aspects of UIs — such as the size, shape, and location of interactive elements — and how they customize the look and feel of their social media pages. They plan to use this input to develop novel programming tools that can be used by both novice and professional programmers alike to create, evaluate, and refine interactive UIs. The project is a natural extension of Potluri’s previous work on CodeTalk, an open-source plug-in that improves the accessibility of integrated development environments (IDEs) such as Microsoft VIsual Studio. That work, which Potluri completed as a research fellow at Microsoft Research Bangalore, improved the glanceability, navigability, and alertability of code through a combination of UI enhancements and both speech and non-speech cues for developers with visual impairments.
In addition to his work on accessible UI design, Potluri is simultaneously leading a project to rethink the multi-touch laptop trackpad as an accessibility device. This effort will build upon previous work by Mankoff and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University on Spatial Region Interaction Techniques (SPRITEs), which repurposed the keyboard to enable people with vision impairments to access interactive website content. Working with three other graduate students as part of a graduate-level HCI course, Potluri aims to extend that concept by identifying challenges for visually-impaired users that could be overcome through use of the trackpad and developing new trackpad interaction techniques.
“Venkatesh’s commitment is to raising the ceiling for the sophistication and range of tasks that Blind computer users and programmers can accomplish. Both of his projects have the potential to make important contributions toward this goal” said Mankoff.
In addition to his technical projects, Potluri is collaborating with two fellow students with disabilities to generate an auto-ethnographic account of their experiences as Ph.D. students in Computer Science & Engineering with disabilities. The hope is that by sharing their unique insights and challenges, they can inspire others with disabilities to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields. Potluri has a history of taking up the cause of technologists with disabilities with positive results. As a co-founder of Inclusive STEM (I-STEM) in his native India, he and his fellow technologists who are blind or visually impaired are helping to make STEM education more accessible. I-STEM’s initiatives include a virtual training program that teaches students with disabilities how to code; inclusive hackathons that engage developers, industry professionals, and students with visual impairments to collaborate on projects; and a series of webinars introducing students to accessibility research in India and beyond. Potluri remains active with the organization, which has succeeding in creating a community and support system for aspiring technologists with disabilities — exactly the kind of leadership and commitment that the Google Lime Scholarship is designed to promote.
“For a first-year Ph.D. student, Venkatesh has set himself ambitious goals. But with his combination of technical acumen and can-do attitude, I am confident that he will achieve them,” said Froehlich. “He is already an accomplished developer, researcher, and social entrepreneur, and I foresee that he will have an even greater impact on the world through his ideas, his technical innovations, and his mentorship of other students and technologists.”
The Google Lime Scholarship is administered through a partnership with Lime Connect, a global non-profit organization that connects students, veterans, and professionals with disabilities with educational and career opportunities. Learn more about the Google Lime Scholarship Program here.