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New voice assistant tool makes web browsing easier for visually impaired

Press Trust of India  |  Toronto 

Researchers have developed a novel voice assistant tool that allows people with visual impairments to get web content as quickly and as effortlessly as possible from smart speakers and similar devices.

A team led by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found a way to merge the best elements of voice assistants with screen readers to create a tool, called Voice Exploration, Retrieval, and Search (VERSE), that makes free-form web searches easier.

"People with visual impairments often rely on screen readers, and increasingly voice-based virtual assistants, when interacting with computer systems," said Alexandra Vtyurina, a PhD candidate at Waterloo, who undertook the study during her internship at Microsoft Research.

"Virtual assistants are convenient and accessible but lack the ability to deeply engage with content, such as read beyond the first few sentences of an article, list alternative search results and suggestions," said Vtyurina said.

In contrast, screen readers allow for deep engagement with accessible content, and provide fine-grained navigation and control, but at the cost of reduced walk-up-and-use convenience.

"Our prototype, VERSE, adds screen reader-like capabilities to virtual assistants, and allows other devices, such as smartwatches to serve as input accelerators to smart speakers," Vtyurina said.

The primary input method for VERSE is voice; so, users can say "next", "previous", "go back" or "go forward".

VERSE can also be paired with an app, which runs on a smartphone or a smartwatch.

These devices can serve as input accelerators, similar to keyboard shortcuts.

For example, rotating the crown on a smartwatch advances VERSE to the next search result, section, or paragraph, depending on the navigation mode.

In the study, 53 visually impaired web searchers were surveyed.

Over half of the respondents reported using voice assistants multiple times a day, and a vast range of devices, such as, smart speakers, phones, and smart TVs.

"At the outset, VERSE resembles other virtual assistants, as the tool allows people to ask a question and have it answered verbally with a word, phrase or passage," said Vtyurina.

"VERSE is differentiated by what happens next. If people need more information, they can use VERSE to access other search verticals, for example, news, facts, and related searches, and can visit any article that appears as a search result.

"For articles, VERSE showcases its screen reader superpowers by allowing people to navigate along words, sentences, paragraphs, or sections," Vtyurina said.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, August 19 2019. 15:00 IST