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New Information System for Blind and Visually Impaired

Computer Scientists at Freie Universität Berlin Start Field Trials

№ 241/2009 from Sep 16, 2009

Norbert Zillmann (links) testet das Vorlesegerät für Blinde, das Dr. Pablo Vidales von den Telekom Laboratories und Professor Raúl Rojas (rechts) von der Freien Universität Berlin entwickelt haben.
Norbert Zillmann (left) tests reader device for the blind that was developed by Dr. Pablo Vidales of the Telekom Laboratories and Prof. Raúl Rojas (right) of Freie Universität. Image Credit: Freie Universität Berlin, Sabrina Wendling
The artificial intelligence group at Freie Universität Berlin, under the direction of the computer science professor Raúl Rojas, has developed a new type of information system for blind and visually impaired individuals. Field trials are being carried out to optimize the device for future users. During the next six months it will be tested by 25 persons. The artificial intelligence group at Freie Universität is collaborating with a research group at the Telekom Laboratories headed by Dr. Pablo Vidales and the Berlin Association for the Education of the Blind and Visually Impaired e.V. The joint project is called InformA. After completion of the field trials, it will receive funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research through its EXIST seed funding program for university-based business start-ups. In addition, IBM Germany is providing funding for further development of the device at Freie Universität.

"InformA" is a small computer that is connected wirelessly to the Internet. The device is operated like a radio. The user can choose between different information channels. By pressing a button, the time or the weather will be announced, but there are also current newspapers available as audio files (currently Tagesspiegel and taz).

In addition, e-mails can be read aloud by the device. The user can answer e-mails by dictating a message. An integrated camera makes it possible to have printed documents such as letters or package information leaflets read aloud fully automatically. In more complicated cases – such as a statement of account for a heating bill – the user of the device can take a photo of the document and send it to a call center. Persons doing community service instead of military service who work for the Berlin Association for the Education of the Blind and Visually Impaired e.V. then provide further assistance. "Through the wealth of information provided by InformA, the device can also be of interest for older people without previous experience with computers, who until now have not had access to information offered through the Internet," according to the project leader, Raúl Rojas.

Twenty-five individuals have already volunteered for the field trials. In a second phase, another 25 will be added. In order to optimize the device, the participants will be interviewed during the course of the trials, about how they cope with the device. There is no charge for participating in the field trials.

Dr. Armgard von Reden, who is the director of governmental programs at IBM and who signed the cooperation agreement between Freie Universität and IBM, stated, "The integration of persons with disabilities has a long history at IBM. That applies to our products, where we are constantly working to provide barrier-free access to the information society. But it also applies to the nearly century-old tradition of employing people with disabilities at IBM."

InformA is an example of an information appliance. Even in the age of the Internet, it is not always necessary to use a fully equipped computer for online communications. Specialized equipment, such as internet radios, can cover specific needs, if the equipment is small, portable, and easy to use.

German Telecom is providing 50 DSL lines and just as many InformA information devices for the participants in the field trials. After the field trials IBM Germany will be supporting the project at Freie Universität Berlin as part of its diversity program. IBM will provide funding for student asistants and computers.

Further Information

Please direct requests for interviews or demonstrations to:

Raúl Rojas
Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Computer Science
Artificial Intelligence Group
Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838 – 75102