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Ben Casnocha
Profile in Innovation: Jeff Bigham

Close-up of Jeff Bigham smiling (Courtesy Jeff Bigham)
Jeff Bigham

A computer science researcher sees a way to make the Internet more available to the blind and visually impaired. Ben Casnocha is author of My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. This article appears in the November issue of eJournal USA, “Roots of Innovation.”


For the 38 million people around the world who have little or no vision, using the Internet is a near-impossible chore. The best option is a “screen reader” — software that reads aloud the text on the screen through a computer’s audio speakers. But screen readers are expensive, and many public libraries and universities do not want to pay the more than $1,000 to have them installed. This means that most blind people miss out on the joys and opportunities of the Internet.

Jeff Bigham wants to change that. Bigham, now an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester in New York State, has created a free, easy-to-install screen reader application for the blind. A blind person logs onto Bigham’s Web site — called WebAnywhere — and from that point forward all Web pages are read aloud. Users can tab through charts, select forms, or instruct the service to read a page from top to bottom.

The crucial part of Bigham’s innovation is the quick load time between the moment a user requests to hear a certain page element and when the audio actually starts to play.

“The potential is there for big lag times between when the user presses a button and gets speech back,” Bigham told MIT’s Technology Review magazine. “Pretty much everyone thought that this latency problem would kill us.” But it hasn’t.

Bigham created an algorithm that predicts which elements of a page a user is most likely to want to hear. For example, after loading a news Web page such as nytimes.com, the system might predict that the user will read the top headline and news story. It would therefore preemptively load audio for that portion of the Web page. When the user eventually selects the top headline, the audio plays instantly. A seamless, swift Web-browsing experience for the blind replaces one that was choppy and full of delays.

Bigham wants to change the world; he doesn’t care about profit. That’s why he has kept his program open source, which means that anyone — yes, anyone — can edit the application to fix bugs and make it better.

Thanks to Bigham’s initial innovation and the subsequent contributions of others, it’s not hard to see a bright Web-surfing future for the blind.

Другие статьи автора: Casnocha Ben

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