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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 05:48 GMT 06:48 UK
Project to open internet to blind
Accessing the web can be hard for the visually impaired
Accessing the web can be hard for the visually impaired
A three-year project to improve blind access to the internet has started at Queen's University in Belfast.

Researchers at the university are working to devise ways to guide the blind and visually impaired through the web, as part of the Enabled initiative.

The EU has provided 3.8m euro funding for the project which 13 other bodies across Europe are taking part in.

Professor Alan Marshall said blind people's groups would help them to carry out trials in Northern Ireland.

Mr Marshall said researchers from the Virtual Engineering Centre would be joining forces with the Sonic Arts Research Centre to work on the projects.

As well as schemes involving tactile display screens and audio cues, there is also the potential to use mobile devices as audio guides for the blind.

He said by embedding devices in public areas like shopping malls, they could advertise the position of shops when a blind person with an enabled personal data device passed.

Mr Marshall said more people now were going blind later in life or through disease and this type of technology could help keep them out and about.

If the problem of inaccessibility is not solved, the discrepancy, known as the digital divide, will become bigger
Professor Alan Marshall

"When you are outside there is GPS (global positioning system) but this doesn't work inside," he said.

"If you had embedded devices they could advertise what the shop is, by saying 'I'm a butchers' through a mobile device."

He said that they could also act as maps to guide the blind through unfamiliar buildings.

"The internet has a great impact on people's lives," Mr Marshall said.

"Through the web information can be accessed remotely; people can interact with friends and family; services such as online shopping, paying bills and distant learning can be provided to the public.

"However, people with blindness or other form of disability are not able to take full advantage due to the inaccessibility in the technology itself.

"If the problem of inaccessibility is not solved, the discrepancy, known as the digital divide, will become bigger as information technology advances," he said.

Trials will be carried out in Belfast in conjunction with the Blind Centre for Northern Ireland and the Royal National Institute of the Blind which will help organise user focus groups and training and evaluation sessions.

Queen's University is the project leader and is joined in the project by 13 other universities and organisations across Europe, including BT and Siemens.


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