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The catch phrase is WebAnywhere: A Screen Reader on the Go and this is exactly what it does. Tools for the visually impaired are few and far between so nobody should begrudge Richard Ladner, a University of Washington professor of Computer Science and Engineering and his doctoral student Jeffrey Bigham from a bow. The mentor and the student developed this web tool keeping the needs of the visually impaired in mind. Blind users generally use their own computers with screen reader software installed. WebAnywhere aims to correct this through its independent platform and web based application.

WebAnywhere is not only a screen reader but its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a web-based application. That means :

– It does not need any software to be installed in the client machine. The only requirement is a browser and the ability to play sound.

– It works with any operating system – Windows, Mac, whatever

– It requires no special permissions; the computer should only be net enabled and should have audio.

– It works on any web-enabled device including any mobile that supports web access.

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– With a data size of 100Kb for the home page, it has a fast loading time (less than 5 seconds).

Check out WebAnywhere’s intro video :

Usability is fairly straightforward. As the introductory video clip also shows, a visually impaired person puts on a pair of headphones, types in the URL of WebAnywhere by pressing Ctrl-R and bringing the ‘Run’ dialog box. The homepage loads and automatically the narration commences. The electronic voice introduces the listener to the WebAnywhere utility and gives a rundown of the shortcut keys to be used. There is also a short video and audio description of the web application for the uninitiated. For the newbie it could be a bit of a baptism to get the hang of it. But with some initial assistance, the interface and navigation shouldn’t present too much of a problem.

The Interface

The WebAnywhere homepage is divided into two frames. The upper frame represents a navigational interface. It behaves like the search box of the browser with an URL field box, a ‘Go’ button, a ‘Find/Search’ box, the ‘Find Next’ and the ‘Find Previous’ buttons.

WebAnywhere Interface

The bottom frame occupying the major part of the screen is the ‘Content Frame’. This displays the web content which is read by the WebAnywhere app. WebAnywhere voices both its interface and the content of the web page that is currently loaded (initially a welcome page). The app prompts the user when any page loads in the content frame. The electronic narrator quotes the content verbatim and also orally sounds the URL links within the page.

The Navigation

Navigation Short Cut Keys

Navigation is simple through a set of pre-defined shortcut keys as shown above. The keys can be configured by the user as well. Further customizations include the option of configuring the way the application reads out the browser controls. This can be used to mimic any of the oft used desktop screen reading software and providing a common set of controls for the user. The option to set personal settings is provided through a shortcut key. The users can create profiles with their personal configurations and these are maintained on the WebAnywhere server.

Some great pros

The WebAnywhere window remains the top level window. Through its back-end coding, the application prevents popup windows and page redirects that are not sent through the system’s proxy. To ensure that the application regains focus, the user can also close dialog boxes or other windows through the ‘Esc’ key or use the ‘ALT-TAB’ combination to help the WebAnywhere application regain its focus. To help users maintain control over the application any loss or gain of focus is announced by the self voicing application.

Adobe Flash via SoundManager 2 Flash Object, installed on 98.5% computers (as reported by Adobe) is the main speech reproducer. WebAnywhere also supports embedded sound players, such as QuickTime and Windows Media Player.

Developers can use WebAnywhere to check if their websites meet today’s accessibility standards. An Open Source standard, the source code can also be downloaded and hosted on an independent server.

Just a few cons

Being a web based application there are some inherent shortcomings. For instance, the application cannot access Adobe Flash objects embedded on a web page.

WebAnywhere, as it is web based, cannot direct its speech recognition program to external applications such as PDF documents. Instead, it redirects it to the HTML version (cached on Google) of the document (if one exists). But these drawbacks are minor as I’m sure you’ll agree.

And the wrap up

WebAnywhere’s primary goal is to provide net usability for the visually impaired on any computer. For an Alpha release, the functionalities outlined make for an ease of experience. Though many would not give up their favorite screen reader software, this application gives access to the blind in places where none is available.

Note: The WebAnywhere Project is supported by a National Science Foundation Grant.

  1. Mackenzie
    July 14, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Why not to use Flash for your websites:
    "Being a web based application there are some inherent shortcomings. For instance, the application cannot access Adobe Flash objects embedded on a web page."

    Flash-based sites use images of text, which screen-readers can't read. Flash is bad for accessibility. Making your menu out of images is also bad for the same reason.

    • Saikat
      July 15, 2008 at 9:17 am

      A lot of websites (usually the well designed ones) have their content designed as such which can be read by applications such as these as well as search engines. It is always a bad idea to design a site with too much of Flash (alternatively, a text based home page can be/sometimes is provided.)

  2. brandon
    July 13, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Web anywhere is a unique product, but I like
    satogo.com
    and
    nvda-project.org
    better. Even though both require something to be installed on the computer[not sure on permitions for system access to go, but nvda will run with limited permitions], but the functionality is much more like a conventional screen reader then web anywhere.

    • Saikat
      July 15, 2008 at 9:15 am

      The main utility of WebAnywhere as a screen reader is its accessibility and portability across all areas. It can very well be a secondary reader for the visually impaired on the go. And you don't have to worry about permissions either.

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