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CSE’s Jeff Bigham, WebAnywhere in Puget Sound Business Journal

“Just imagine you’re blind and trying to go online at an internet cafe in Paris. Until now, unless you had $1,000 worth of software installed, it was just about impossible. But in recent weeks hundreds of blind people found their worlds opening up online with help from a web-based program called WebAnywhere.

The program was created by Jeffrey Bigham, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department. He knew that many applications were moving from desktop computers to the web, and thought such a program could help blind people.

Read the article here.

July 1, 2008

Allen School and CMU researchers introduce SPRITEs for nonvisual access to graphical website content

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff

Many web users have become accustomed to navigating page content with the help of spatial and visual cues such as navigation bars, tabs, and icons. But for those who are blind or low-vision, the proliferation of visually rich, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) make it challenging to locate and consume information online — even with the help of a screen reader or braille display. Now, thanks to Allen School professor Jennifer Mankoff and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, help is literally at hand with new Spatial Region Interaction Techniques (SPRITEs) that leverage a standard piece of equipment – the keyboard – to access interactive elements onscreen.

SPRITEs is a set of tools that to enable non-sighted users to access web content that may be implicitly conveyed to sighted users but is integral to browsing and navigation for all users. Whereas most most websites tend to organize content in accordance with Gestalt psychology principles — for example, grouping similar items in close proximity to each other, or the consistent placement of items in familiar locations — most commercially available screen readers are set up to access only simple page elements such as headers, links, and lists. By combining a screen reader with SPRITEs, however, non-sighted users can quickly and easily access more robust content contained in elements such as menus, tables, and maps.

As Mankoff explains, SPRITEs is designed to supplement, not supplant, screen readers to enhance the user experience and keep up with current trends in website design.

“We’re not trying to replace screen readers, or the things that they do really well,” Mankoff says in a UW News release. “This study demonstrates that we can use the keyboard to bring tangible, structured information back, and the benefits are enormous.”

The aforementioned benefits include a significant improvement in users’ ability to complete online tasks thanks to the way SPRITEs maps the keyboard to various elements of a site. The researchers focused on the corners and edges of the keyboard — with the exception of the function keys, which are reserved for browser-level controls — to make it easy for the user to find the keys that they need. In keeping with their user-centric approach, the team assigned the scrolling function to the right-most column of keys, thus enabling the user to hold onto the edge of the keyboard and easily keep track of which key they pressed last. Once a user finds what they are looking for as the screen reader speaks each object, the user interacts with their target by double-pressing a key.

Certain categories of content — for example, grouped content such as menus and search results, or elements such as tables and maps — are assigned to the numerical row of keys, with those at either end reserved for scrolling. This functionality enables non-sighted users to engage with information that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, for them to access using existing accessibility tools alone.

SPRITEs keyboard illustration

The SPRITEs keyboard layout

The researchers evaluated SPRITEs in a user study involving 10 blind or low-vision individuals experienced with accessibility tools for the web. Participants were asked to complete a set of tasks using their preferred screen reader, and then asked to complete a similar task using SPRITEs. Use of the latter produced a three-fold improvement in task completion rates in five of eight tasks, including those related to navigation, menu interaction, and tables. There was also evidence that, even in this limited study, participants began to develop a mental model of the spatial or hierarchical structure of a page as it related to the keyboard.

With SPRITEs, the researchers have found a way to extend the advantages of Gestalt-driven web design — which sighted individuals tend to take for granted — to an entirely new population of users.

“Rather than having to browse linearly through all the options, our tool lets people learn the structure of the site and then go right there,” Mankoff notes.

Mankoff and her co-authors at CMU — Ph.D. students Rushil Khurana and Elliot Lockerman and recent bachelor’s alumnus Duncan McIsaac — are presenting their paper on SPRITEs at the CHI 2018 conference in Montreal, Canada next week. Mankoff plans to continue refining SPRITEs and building in robust functionality before making it available to the public as part of WebAnywhere, a web-based screen reader developed by Allen School Ph.D. alumnus Jeffrey Bigham, now a faculty member at CMU, and Allen School professor emeritus Richard Ladner.

Read the UW News release here, visit the project web page here.


April 18, 2018

CSE’s Richard Ladner and Tactile Graphics Project featured in Eyes on Success audio show

Richard LadnerLast week, Eyes on Success interviewed UW CSE professor Richard Ladner about his long-running Tactile Graphics Project, a tool for creating universally accessible graphs and charts. During the half-hour audio show, Ladner talked about the importance of tactile graphics in providing blind students with access to figures and diagrams in textbooks, and how computer vision and machine learning techniques enable more rapid translation of graphical images for this purpose. He also talked about Tactile Graphics with a Voice, which is a way to access the textual information in tactile graphics using QR-codes instead of Braille.

The Eyes on Success audio show, which was created by Pete and Nancy Torpey in 2011, has more than 200 entertaining and informative interviews with people who are blind or who work on projects that serve the blind and low-vision population. Former graduate student Jeff Bigham was featured in August 2011 sharing details on WebAnywhere, the web-based screen reader that he developed as part of his UW dissertation.

Listen to Richard’s Eyes on Success interview here.

Learn more about the Tactile Graphics Project here.

May 18, 2015

UW CSE friends and family again score big in Technology Review TR35!

tr35Since 1999, the editors of Technology Review have honored the young innovators whose inventions and research they find most exciting; today that collection is the TR35, a list of technologists and scientists, all under the age of 35.  Selected from more than 300 nominees by a panel of expert judges and the editorial staff of Technology Review, the TR35 is an elite group of accomplished young innovators who exemplify the spirit of innovation. Their work – spanning medicine, computing, communications, electronics, nanotechnology, and more – is changing our world.

Once again, UW CSE friends and family have scored big in the TR35:

  • patel_x220UW CSE professor Shwetak Patel is recognized for using simple sensors to detect residents’ activities. Patel has shown that each electrical appliance in a house produces a signature in the building’s wiring; plugged into any outlet, a single sensor that picks up electrical variations in the power lines can detect the signal made by every device as it’s turned on or off. This monitoring ability could be particularly useful for elder care or for residential or business power conservation, but there was previously no practical way to achieve it, because it would have required numerous expensive sensors. (See TR35 article here.)

  • jeff_bigham_x220UW CSE’s recent Ph.D. alumnus Jeff Bigham, who will join the University of Rochester as a faculty member this month, is recognized for his work on WebAnywhere, a free screen reader for the sight-impaired that can be used with practically any Web browser on any operating system – no special software required. Users start at; from there, they can use keyboard commands to navigate to any Web page.  (See TR35 article here.)

  • treuille_x220UW CSE’s recent Ph.D. alumnus Adrien Treuille, who joined the Carnegie Mellon faculty last fall, is recognized for his work on complex physics simulations for computer animation and games that can run on everyday PCs.  While a grad student, he and fellow CSE grad student Seth Cooper worked with CSE professor Zoran Popovic and UW biochemist David Baker to design a web game called Foldit ( that allows players to compete in finding minimum-energy folds in proteins, aiding Baker’s world-reknowned research. More than 90,000 users have registered and played since the game’s launch in May 2008. Treuille wonders if someone – most likely even an amateur, since teenage gamers are beating the pants off Ph.D. biochemists at the game – might someday use Foldit to help discover a protein that cures cancer. (See TR35 article here.)

University of Massachusetts professor Kevin Fu was also recognized for work on the security and privacy of implantable medical devices, a collaboration with UW CSE professor Yoshi Kohno, who was recognized by the TR35 two years ago. (See TR35 article here.)

Congratulations to Shwetak, Jeff, Adrien, and Kevin!  It’s been a great few years for UW CSE in the TR35. In 2008, the TR-35 recognized UW CSE affiliate faculty members Tanzeem Choudhury (Dartmouth) and Merrie Morris (Microsoft Research), and close collaborator Blaise Aguera y Arcas (Microsoft LiveLabs).  In 2007, the TR-35 recognized UW CSE professor Yoshi Kohno, UW CSE graduate student Tapan Parikh (now a faculty member at UC Berkeley), UW CSE Ph.D. alumna Karen Liu (now a faculty member at USC), and UW CSE affiliate faculty member Desney Tan (Microsoft Research).

Go team!  See the full list of this year’s winners here.

August 17, 2009

Jeff Bigham Selected 2009 NCTI “Technology in the Works” Awardee

ibm-workingUW CSE’s Jeff Bigham‘s team is one of five teams awarded the 2009 NCTI Technology in the Works award.  His team was selected to examine web browsing made accessible for blind students— Enabling More Effective Use of the Web Anywhere with WebAnywhere and TrailBlazer.

The National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) assists researchers, developers, and entrepreneurs in creating innovative learning tools for all students, with special focus on students with disabilities.   NCTI sponsors this annual competition to inform the development of learning and assistive technologies that can improve educational results for all students, particularly those with disabilities.  Five exceptional teams of researchers and vendors have been selected to examine the impact of innovative assistive technologies for students with special needs.

Findings will be presented at the 2009 Technology Innovators Conference in Washington, D.C., November 16-17.

May 6, 2009

Helping the Blind and Deaf Feel at Home in a Wired World

<span style="color: #666666">Photo: Mary Levin</span>

Photo: Mary Levin

Columns, the magazine of the University of Washington Alumni Association, reports on the long and fruitful work that Boeing Professor in Computer Science and Engineering Richard Ladner has done making technology and opportunity more available to blind and deaf people.

Dr. Ladner had two deaf parents, which helped him understand the challenges faced by those with sensory disabilities and motivated him to work to help lower barriers

A notable project to come out of Ladner’s advocacy work is WebAnywhere (previous CSE News reporting here), which allows blind users to have web pages read to them using a standard PC, eliminating the requirement for an expensive “screen reader” program. This project is developed by CSE PhD student Jeffrey Bigham. Another is MobileASL (previous CSE News reporting here), a collaboration with Electrical Engineering professor Eve Riskin, which allows deaf users to have American Sign Language conversations using unmodified cellphones. Another: the cross-disciplinary Tactile Graphics project, which has developed software to speedily create tactile versions of visual graphics, which are accessible to unsighted users.

Read the full article here.

March 4, 2009

Recipients of Third Annual Mellon Awards for Technology Collaboration Announced

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded prizes to ten not-for-profit institutions.  UW CSE’s own WebAnywhere was one of this year’s recipients.  Vint Cerf, presenting these awards at the Fall Task Force meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) said the following:

“The MATC Awards have a history of recognizing projects that improve accessibility for people with visual or other impairments, and this year is no exception. The next awardee is the University of Washington, for Project WebAnywhere. By providing a screen-reader as a Web server component, WebAnywhere allows an institution to provide screen-reading functionality to any computer, anywhere in the world, as long as it has speakers, an Internet connection, and a Web browser.  Because screen readers can cost thousands of dollars per machine and cannot be moved easily, the total benefit to an institution can be considerable—and the improved mobility for persons with visual impairments generates substantial benefits for students and faculty.

Accepting the award for UW is Jeff Bigham, a PhD candidate in Computer Science and the creator of WebAnywhere.”

Additional information on the awards may be viewed here. More information on the awards ceremony, including podcast interviews with recipients, may be viewed at the CNI website which should be available around December 10, 2008.

December 9, 2008

Richard Ladner Receives 2008 Purpose Prize

Richard Ladner, UW CSE professor, was one of 15 recipients of the 2008 Purpose Prize, an award for social innovators over 60. Ladner has shifted his focus from computer science theory to developing better technologies for disabled people. He and his students and colleagues have developed such applications as WebAnywhere, software to allow the blind to use the internet on the go, MobileASL, an application for deaf people to use video communication on cell phones, and a faster way to translate textbook graphics into Braille for blind students. The Purpose Prize, now in its sixth year, is awarded by Civic Ventures and funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation.

See Civic Ventures’ press release here.

December 4, 2008

“Opening new portals for the blind”

Read the article here.

WebAnywhere, an Internet-based service released last month, boasts an even better price tag: free. The program’s innovation isn’t so much about what it does — no more than existing Web readers that convert written text to digital speech — as it is about its availability on almost any computer.”

July 1, 2008

“Web-based program gives the blind Internet access” (Washington Post)

“Blind people generally use computers with the help of screen-reader software, but those products can cost more than $1,000, so they’re not exactly common on public PCs at libraries or Internet cafes. Now a free new Web-based program for the blind aims to improve the situation. It’s called WebAnywhere, and it was developed by a computer science graduate student at the University of Washington.”

Read the article at The Washington Post.

July 1, 2008

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