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lynx-dev LYNX is for blind? Here's a *drawing* program for them!
lynx-dev LYNX is for blind? Here's a *drawing* program for them!
Mon, 1 Jul 2002 05:21:46 -0400
Computer-drawing program allows blind to 'see'
Copyright © 2002
United Press International
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By LIDIA WASOWICZ, UPI Senior Science Writer
(June 30, 2002 11:33 a.m. EDT) - Frustrated by the difficulty of
incorporating charts into his school reports, Hesham Kamel, a blind
engineering student at the University of California at Berkeley, has
designed a computer-drawing program that permits the visually
impaired to create - and "see" - illustrations, graphics and other
images on the screen.
Kamel, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Electrical
Engineering and Computer Sciences, has set his sights on refining the
prototype, dubbed Integrated Communication 2 Draw, into a viable
"There's nothing else out there that can help me create and view
graphics," said Kamel, 40, who lost his vision 17 years ago through a
surgeon's error. "With the IC2D, blind people can use screen readers
paired with voice synthesizers to literally hear text on the computer
Taking advantage of the universal familiarity with the layout of a
telephone keypad, the program divides the screen into nine squares,
each labeled with the corresponding numbers "1" through "9." Moving
from square to square is just like dialing a telephone number. Each
time a user enters a square, he or she has the option of subdividing
it into another three-by-three grid, zooming in on increasingly finer
details in the drawing. The program is capable of repeating the
progression 81 times for a total of 729 possible squares.
The recognizable keypad arrangement replaces the traditional computer
staple of pull-down menus - which present a challenge to blind users
- for controlling commands, shapes, lines and colors. When pointing a
cursor at a particular cell, the navigator can ask for audio feedback
that describes the location - for example, square 1 - or the shapes
or pictures represented within.
The system can enable the blind to draw and create animations for
school, pleasure or work, said Kamel, who has been showing off the
evolving project at conferences on human-computer interaction and
assistive technology since 1999, in the United States and Europe. He
will present the latest model July 8-10 at a meeting of the
Association for Computing Machinery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
When he describes his software, Kamel likes to involve the audience
in an exercise that demonstrates the struggle the visually impaired
face when drawing, particularly on a computer. Standing in the center
of the room, palm extended toward his listeners, he asks them to
point at his hand, close their eyes, move their finger to another
object, then return it to its original position, site now unseen.
"Nine-nine percent of the time, I get the whole audience laughing
because they're not on target," Kamel said.
Therein lies the challenge for those who cannot see. Once they pick
up their pen or move their mouse, how do they locate the next point
or return to the previous one to continue drawing?
Kamel used the simplified phone keypad patterns to help blind users
locate those points. In place of the impractical pull-down menus, he
converted and organized the program's functions into four more
blind-friendly palettes, also set up in telephone keypad formation.
One palette includes file options, such as saving a picture. A second
is devoted to predefined colors and a third to shapes. The fourth
palette contains functions that allow users to create animation.
Kamel is asked often why those without sight would need to draw
something they cannot see.
"There are many people out there who can't understand that blind
people have imaginations, just as sighted people do," he said. "For
me, it's all about independence."
It is a lesson learned over his sightless years.
"After I became blind, I found out that most sighted people think
that blind people have little or no independence. For example, the
prevailing attitude is if you cannot see a piece of steak, then
someone has to cut it for you. If you're going to an unfamiliar
place, then someone has to travel with you. And if you cannot see the
computer screen, then someone has to do the work for you," Kamel told
United Press International.
"I wanted to make a little contribution and change some of that. One
of the main ideas behind IC2D is providing a method for blind people
to deal with graphical output without the assistance of a sighted
person. It was also important to make the software not dependent on
bulky, expensive external devices in order to increase the user's
mobility and make the application more widely available."
The IC2D software is a remarkable achievement, said James Landay,
associate professor of computer science at Berkeley and Kamel's
thesis advisor who inspired and guided the project.
"It has been amazing to see some of the drawings that Hesham's blind
research participants have created," Landay told UPI. "These are
drawings they never could have made before. One man blind since birth
drew a side view of a car that's as good as anything I could draw!"
Victoria Hahn of Susanville, Calif., who has been testing the product
since 1999, is sold on the software.
"I think the program is fantastic and extremely usable," said Hahn, a
blind mother of five grown children who is pursuing a degree and
career in art. "It takes a matter of minutes to pick up on the
system, on how it works and how to use the different levels and
access the different shapes and colors. Each time you move your
cursor, the program tells you what colors you have chosen. This makes
it accessible to visually impaired or color blind or totally blind
The audio portion detailing every step enables her to visualize what
she is creating but cannot see, Hahn told UPI.
"As a visually impaired person, I see great things happening if this
system becomes commercially available, with a wide variety of uses -
by students for charts or graphs for their presentations, by
professors for teaching materials, by business people for instant
illustration at company meetings," Hahn said.
The computing industry has made some strides in developing software
for the blind, but programs - especially for drawing - remain few,
and many of them are expensive and require unwieldy equipment to
"When you look at technology, the trend is for things to get smaller,
faster and cheaper," Kamel said. "That hasn't been true for
technology for the blind. The devices we need to use computers - such
as a 50-pound Braille printer - are large, expensive or both."
IC2D is portable and compatible with any computer screen reader for
"I must have tried everything on the market, and there isn't any
other program like this," Hahn said.
It was this limited availability that inspired Kamel four years ago
to pursue his project. As a graduate student, he became frustrated
one day when he failed to meet an assignment deadline because he
could not produce the graphics. The person who was supposed to draw
the illustrations for him was on vacation.
"I had to ask for an extension to turn in the report," Kamel
recalled. "Later, at a meeting with my adviser, discussing drawing,
he looked at me and said, 'Why don't you work on something so you can
draw by yourself?' This sentence was literally what started my Ph.D.
research, which evolved into IC2D."
Kamel said he inspected every detail of digital drawing by the blind,
which he compared to a situation as challenging for a sighted person
as using a computer with the monitor turned off.
"I studied the advantages and disadvantages of currently available
drawing tools for the blind, some of which mimic a pencil and paper,"
he recalled. "I wanted to let the blind user have control over the
screen, so that they could move a cursor to a specific location and
know exactly where it is. I also wanted them to be able to move the
cursor away to perform another task and then relocate the original
The resulting program underwent a number of transformations, many of
them guided by input from the 22 volunteers, ages 19 to 55 - some
sighted, some blindfolded, some visually impaired, some blind - who
have tested the system over the years.
"In my final usability study, blind participants' own responses
indicated that the grid interface was intuitive," Kamel said. "Most
of them remarked that they appreciated the interface because it
allowed them to know where they were at all times."
The artwork produced ranged from a cube and the side view of a car to
a cartoonish pig and a detailed Christmas tree.
"IC2D allowed the users to make precise drawings and view drawings
done by other users, both sighted and blind," Kamel said. "The
animation feature, which has not yet been formally user-tested,
allows blind users to make computer-based animations for the first
Eventually, Kamel said, he hopes the software will enable other blind
users to master such projects as designing Web sites and he would
like to sell the program commercially.
"The visually impaired people who tried it were interested in getting
it, so I think this could become a commercial product for a limited
segment of the population," Landay said.
"I think there might be enough (interest) to make a viable small
business," John Freeman, Helzel Professor of Entrepreneurship and
Innovation at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, told UPI.
"Kamel's product sounds very interesting and potentially very useful
to the visually impaired," added John Myers, professor emeritus at
"The current depressed economic environment is not the best time to
be launching a product, but if there is demand for it and the product
is 'good,' it can still be done," Myers told UPI.
Kamel said his ultimate goal transcends commercial viability.
"More than anything, I want to change the way people think when they
develop technology for the visually impaired," he said.
"What Hasham has accomplished is amazing," Landay said. "He felt he
could have a lot of impact because of his different perspective, and
what he's achieved can have an impact on all of us, the blind and the
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