There is a controversy going on over Amazon’s Kindle reader, and whether it should be used by colleges and universities as a cheaper way to distribute textbooks. The issue has to do with the difficulty that blind students and students with limited vision have when using the Kindle. Objections to its use might be pressuring Amazon to support better text-reading technology, adjustable/large fonts, and audible menus.
I do have to say that the look and feel of readers like the Kindle do provide many folks with limited vision a far more accessible reading source than traditional computer screens.
But these devices could make life far easier for folks with limited vision. Here are some thoughts:
The limitations of paper.
There several problems with paper. Fixed font sizes is one.
So is the tendency for (especially cheap paperback) books to have lines of text packed tightly together. This makes it hard to track lines across the page. And people who have distorted vision because of diseased corneas and other conditions find that lines of text lay on top of each other; when lines are separated by sufficient blank space, and when fonts are reasonably large, distorted vision becomes far less of a problem.
Another problem has to do with the cheap, low contrast paper that is used in paperbacks and professional books. Almost ironically, slick, expensive paper can be a problem too, because its reflective nature increases distortion.
We all have (or will have) limited vision.
In truth, electronic book readers can benefit a large chunk of the reading population. If you live long enough, you are quite likely to develop some sort of vision problem. Ever noticed that ophthalmologist and optometrist offices are often filled with older folks? Down the road a ways, that could be you with nearsighted vision or an astigmatism that can’t be fully corrected with glasses or contacts, or with developing cataracts or macular degeneration.
In fact, somewhere around the age of forty, most of us start needing reading glasses, and the fixed focal length of aging, stiff lenses start making the process of reading somewhat less fun.
Cheap books are often hard to open flat, making magnifying glasses harder to use, as well.
Gracefully adaptive is the answer.
Many folks with limited vision routinely change fonts sizes and styles on electronic documents that we must read. We monkey with browser settings.
Supporting highly flexible settings, rather than just a few alternative font sizes, would make electronic book readers far more adaptable and usable. Being able to increase the space between lines and to change font styles would be a great help.
Being able to turn audio reading on and off fluidly and being able to speed audio reading up for skimming would be great, too.
Also, being able to render images with varying quality would help individuals make that trade-off between visibility and rendering time. Many of us would gladly wait a few seconds to have a clear, sharp image pop up.
The bottom line.
Good/bad vision is a spectrum, with only very young and healthy people being at the far “good” end. Electronic book readers offer an incredible opportunity to make reading far easier for countless people. All we have to do is engineer adaptability into the devices.]]>
Over the past few years, I have had cornea transplants. The corneas are the clear outer surface of the eye, which pre-focusses light for the lens. I have also had cataract surgery. This is done to replace diseased natural lenses with plastic ones. I am also super-super-nearsighted and have extreme astigmatism in both eyes.
Limited vision and the Web.
Here are some of the things that have made a difference or hold promise for the future:
The basic approach: lower screen resolutions.
This is what a lot of us already do. I use a 30 inch display and set the pixel density far lower than its maximum. I crank up the brightness. This is something that an individual can do on their own, assuming they can afford an expensive display.
The application approach: enlarging fonts on GUIs and in viewing windows.
This is something else I do. It’s hard to enlarge fonts in the GUIs of applications (like Microsoft Word), but many applications allow you to enlarge fonts inside the main work window, without enlarging fonts in the document (or other artifact) that is being created.
The browser approach: browser plugins for enlarging areas of webpages.
There are a couple of these out. I have a sister who is a science writer, and she pointed me toward http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/ ( I have since learned that there are others). This plugin works with Firefox. It extracts text from webpages and blows it up.
The webpage standards approach:
screen readers for text, graphics, and markups,
the use of high contrast colors and special style sheets,
alternative viewing pages and search pages.
Much of this is actively underway, but it has been very slow to be deployed in the real world. This approach calls for a lot of cooperation between web developers, web standards folks, and society in general to make a significant investment in developing effective technology, in particular screen readers. These readers allow people with limited vision to hear written text, and descriptions of graphic images and internal pieces of webpages. Alternative pages for use by folks with limited vision might not be cost effective for a business to construct, but there is a precedent: many companies (like Amazon) have alternative pages for extra-small devices, and ironically, these can be easier for folks like me to use because they get rid of many of the noisy images, boxes, lines, and unnecessary text.
Online volunteers: the social approach.
This is something that is very promising. If volunteers can make themselves available via phone or Skype when a person with limited vision needs help, they can quickly pull up the same webpages and walk the person through the process of using them. Over the years, I have had my wife and kids do this for me, often when we are not even in the same building.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Well, it’s very hard for people with limited vision to use the Web, and the growing use of video and images and animations in webpages (something that is arriving hand-in-hand with Web 2.0/3.0) is making it all the worse.
… Consider volunteering to be available on the phone or on Skype for a friend or relative or coworker who might need occasional help. And if you are a Web developer or operate a Web-based business or organization, consider the PR coup that would come with being at the forefront of making your website more accessible!]]>
The Traveler had it easy.
There is a series of three science fiction novels by John Twelve Hawks. They concern a “Traveler” who battles the “Vast Machine”, which is a global grid of security cameras, governmental and corporate databases, and computers that collect information on people, track them, and manipulate society. They are very popular novels.
But these books are not all that imaginative.
Why not? If and when the Semantic Web ever emerges (please see previous postings of this blog), there will be a lot more than security camera footage and passive database systems out there. In his books, Twelve Hawks describes programmers working for the Vast Machine who pull information out of databases and plant information in databases, and who somehow locate and integrate information from many sources. It’s not clear how they do it.
The problem is tractability. Extracting the meaning of data (its “semantics”) is extremely difficult, and given today’s Web, it is a highly manual, painstaking, and ultimately intractable problem. Twelve Hawks’ Vast Machine isn’t all that much of a threat.
Consider, however, the emerging Semantic Web.
The whole idea of the Semantic Web, on the other hand, is to make databases proactive, to let them announce their content by using globally accepted standards. In this blog, we have looked at one proposed standard, called RDF, which is based on “triples” that interrelate information, and a Web-hopping query language called SPARQL that can concatenate triples that define information at diverse, independently-created websites – thus inferring new information. We’ve looked at the beginnings of this technology as it is taking form on the Web.
In other words, it might not be long at all before the least of our problems would be dastardly hackers who break into databases and pluck information – because the finding, integrating, and interpreting of data from highly divergent sources will become, in large part, automatic.
It will make the intractable quite tractable.
Okay, I confess…
It is not as simple as that, of course, and I am grossly overstating the danger. Presumably, private databases belonging to corporations and governments will not be loaded up with this sort of semantic metadata and placed on the open Web. And the sorts of inferences that can be made by unifying metadata from multiple sites will be fairly low-level, leaving a lot of difficult work for any Vast Machine that wants to manipulate our every move and thought.
But it is true that the potential for misuse will increase sharply. There will indeed be many isolated instances where innocently posted information from two or more sites will be automatically linked together because of uniformly-specified metadata. If one triple at one site has data marked up as “People OWN Kinds-0f-StampCollections”, and another site says that “Kinds-of-StampCollections HAVE Certain-Values”, a thief who knows little about philatelics might learn that Bob owns stamps from the Southern Confederacy, and that stamps from the Southern Confederacy are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars…
Just a thought for the next sci-fi writer.]]>