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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sleeping Giants

This past week, many of we so-called “AT experts received a terse email from a group we had never heard from before.  The contents of the email had so few facts and seemed so ambiguous that a bunch of us immediately thought it was some sort of spam/fishing scheme.  Then again, we wondered who would go through the trouble of finding top AT experts with widely read blogs just to hit us with some form of malware.  Sy T Greenbacks is a character I invented so he never does anything without me knowing about it in advance so I am aware of his evilocity well before he takes any such action.

 

Thus, after asking about it to some friends, I was pointed to Marco Zehe’s Accessibility Blog.  Marco is another FS refugee now with Mozilla and an undisputed expert in the field. 

 

The top article on Marco’s blog, entitled, “WebVisum Firefox extension” describes this new suite of tools by some visionary hackers.  I recommend that everyone interested in BC bookmark Marco’s blog as he publishes some of the best information in the biz.

 

Quoting directly from Marco’s blog, “was posted to the mozilla.dev.accessibility newsgroup. The things talked about in this post and on the WebVisum homepage almost sound too good to be true. Among the features are:

 

  • Ability to tag graphics, form fields, links, and other page elements. While some or all of these features have been available in some screen readers already, this feature is unique in that it works across platforms. It also sends the data back to the WebVisum web service so other members of the community can benefit from the labels someone provided.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to try and identify those images that absolutely won’t tell us through their SRC what they’re all about.
  • Visual page enhancements such as a high-contrast profile.
  • Suppression of automatic page refreshes or Flash content
  • And most astonishingly: CAPTCHA solving!”

 

My only minor disagreement with Marco’s article is about the feature people can use to label and share information to give useful definition to the gibberish that causes such annoying noise on many web pages.  Serotek’s System Access (the screen reader formerly known as Freedom Box System access – is it a coincidence that Serotek and Prince are both based in Minneapolis?) has had its C-Saw feature that performs exactly this function by giving the users a tool to label these annoying elements and share the information with other users on the System Access Mobile Network.  Serotek has had this feature since they were just a tiny piece of the market but, over five years ago, Mike Calvo called me at my desk at FS to discuss opening this up as a standard that all AT could share – all of the established companies refused his offer which I believe still stands.  I think it would be an excellent step forward if Serotek and the WebVisum people could work together to harmonize their efforts as Serotek already has something like 4,000 sites labeled which will make for a great jumping off point.

 

I’ll skip over most of the other features as they are covered nicely in Marco’s article and move directly onto the plug-in’s ability to solve CAPTCHA (often called visual verification) which has been one of the greatest boundaries to Internet accessibility for a long time.

 

In my own testing and reports I’ve received in emails, users have been able to get beyond CAPTCHA on a panoply of sites.  These guys really nailed this feature; meanwhile, for a number of years now, the better established AT companies have ignored CAPTCHA as an unsolvable problem.  How then a handful of faceless hackers somewhere in the world (I couldn’t find geographical coordinates on their web site anywhere) beat all of the big dollar screen readers with one of the most important features added this century.  Simply put, the major players ignored the CAPCHA problem, told their users that it was impossible and the blind followed like sheep.

 

I have also felt a bit discouraged reading the blog posts by AT experts with vision impairment lately.  Simply reprinting an AT companies press release without any sort of analysis is something AT companies should buy as advertising from us blinks rather than expecting to get it for free.

 

Some of the well established screen readers have done some quite innovative things of late, not as cool as solving CAPTCHA but definitely worth mentioning.

 

The new model for distributing System Access at no cost via the virtualized web-based SATOGO program and on USB keys for students K-12 at no cost is beyond innovative and downright radical.  This remodeling of the AT pricing scenarios will bring AT to many people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.  Readers should check out the Serotek web site for details on these programs but as SA has matured into a real contender in the Windows screen reader market, using the no-cost web based version can replace the higher cost programs in many cases.

 

The other great development that has come out recently is the Window-Eyes scripting facility that uses COM and offers programmers a variety of languages in which they can extend WE.  This was not an easy task and as WE has, for years, advertised that no scripting was necessary, it demonstrated a level of courage by GW’s leaders to make the change.

 

Returning to CAPTCHA, though, why couldn’t the collective wisdom of the commercial AT companies come up with a solution that some guys with no background in the field managed to solve?  I’m not suggesting that the problem was easy but, paraphrasing Jack Kennedy, “we do not endeavor on these projects because they are easy, we do so because they are hard!”

 

Now I’m really looking forward to hearing what Darrell “Captain CAPTCHA” Shandrow has to say on the matter.  For years, he has been the most outspoken leader in our community regarding these road blocks to people with vision impairment effectively using the web.  I’m not sure that this new utility will be a silver bullet but it is certainly the greatest innovation this market has seen in a very, very long time.

 

-- End

 

7 Comments:

Blogger Mike Calvo said...

Hey BC:
Thanks for the kind words man. We have spent the last seven years agitating for change and I am beginning to think I really see it coming. I find a couple of small issues with this new CAPTCHA service. I believe it requires a plug-in of some kind on your browser. Unlike C-SAW that works just by logging in to our network. We actually have C-SAW working under Linux for the Icon but we got so much flack from the wanta be Linux heads in the blindness community that our Linux plans died on the vine years ago, and good riddens. This CAPTCHA program will also charge for the service. So, now we have to pay for the privilege of getting through CAPTCHAs?

They say that imitation is the best form of flattery. I have seen this service and another offering C-SAW type services. I think the day that our industry stops trying so hard to reinvent the wheel and really starts to have the blind community in mind, is the day we will move forward. This is a waist of time considering, as you said, that we have already done over 4000 sites and have offered it to AT company's with no strings attached. That offer still stands. I am a blind guy first and then a member of the Serotek staff. Services like C-SAW can change the world for blind Internet users if we would just get on the same page. Hey, we stopped our own scripting plans because GW was doing a great job. Why should we muddy the waters? Don't we have many many other areas we can point our innovations at?


Again thanks for a great post dude.

10:09 AM  
Blogger WebVisum said...

In no place did we say that WebVisum will charge for solving CAPTCHAs or for providing the services that are already offered for free.

To make our position crystal clear:

- We're very happy to have helped with CAPTCHAs, but we do not see it as our main feature.

- The current features: CAPTCHA solving, link, form, page and image tagging and VI enhancements would remain free to all, in the true sense of the word, forever and always.

- We believe that for the community tagging feature is our most important one. For it to be of any use, it would have to be actively used by each and every blind and visually impaired person on the Internet.

What makes our offer different from other similar ones so far, is that because it's free, it can actually have a large enough user base to become meaningful and have a true impact on your daily browsing activity.

If hundreds of thousands of people would just tag the sites that they frequent, we would have millions of sites tagged! Automatically these millions of sites become more accessible to the entire community - that's called reach.

We have to educate the community on these aspects:

1. The Web 2.0 revolusion is putting the power in people's hands - everyone benefits from the collective effort. Tag each and every site you frequent, contribute your share by making the sites you frequent more pleasurable and get some love back from the community by surprising you with more accessible sites that you will visit in the future. I cannot stress this enough, the tool has to be used by everyone to become a success.

2. Firefox is the browser of the future, any techie will tell you that. Its market share is constantly growing, it is unstoppable. Version 3.0 is orders of magnitude better than version 2.0, they release frequently and they constantly improve based on user feedback (unlike some other browsers out there) If you're not yet a Firefox user, you should be because you're missing out on the future. If you were a Firefox 1.0 or 2.0 user, it's time to try version 3.0 because otherwise, you're missing out.

3. You think Firefox is inaccessible? Think again. Ask the professionals, don't rely on old and outdated information, don't rely on antique versions of various screen readers. Just as you must be up to date with your operating system, you must be out of date with all the important tools that you use. Keep your Firefox and screen readers up to date to get the full benefit of new accessibility.

Can't afford a screen reader? Try a new and totally free screen reader called NVDA, http://nvda-project.org/ version 0.6p1 supports Firefox quite nicely and they are working on improving it daily.

Got an issue or question about Firefox? Ask the relevant forums and groups, never ever keep a problem to yourself. Either someone will educate you and show you the right way, or, by submitting a bug or problem report to be addressed by the Firefox accessibility team you will get your problem fixed. The accessibility team is living this every day and they are determined to make Firefox the most accessible browser on the net. There is no other team more dedicated than the Firefox accessibility team.

Best,
Richard

3:28 PM  
Blogger sam said...

IBM has started a similar effort with respect to community tagging called Social Accessibility. While it currently only works with IE and JFW, I believe the potential exists to open it up to other platforms because all of the information is stored server-side. It also has a few other nifty features that Visum doesn't, and since it re-renders the page, it doesn't require a Firefox extension which should not limit the browser required to benefit from the efforts of the community tagging. With at least three different community tagging projects going on, we need to find some way to centralize the efforts so that everybody can benefit from them regardless of the tool they use. What I'd like to see is an exchange of databases between Serotek and IBM (if Mike is up to that), and a contribution of community tags from the Visum folks. Perhaps all three tools could pull their metadata from the same server.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Will Pearson said...

Hi,

I think community tagging is definately the way forward for blink assistive technology to go. When I was working on automatically translating SVG diagrams into natural language descriptions back when I was a final year undergrad and then a member of the Web and Multi Agents Research Group at Sheffield Hallam I was thinking about some sort of community tagging system. The idea was to allow people to associate the names of things with the shapes used to represent them in diagrams and images, as we could establish what shapes things were from looking at the SVG tags. Whilst we could have done this ourselves, which we did for the research work that we did on the problem, if it had been commercialised then community tagging would have worked really well for that situation.

Since then I've been thinking more and more about how people identify objects as this is one of the two fundamental roles that assistive technology for blinks needs to fulfil and it's also been a major part of my PhD in Haptics. If we can develop an object recognition system then I think that community tagging would work really well here too. It would mean that the community could make applications accessible very very easily instead of having to wait for AT vultures to update the code for their off screen models as object recognition and community tagging would replace off screen models entirely.

So, it's great to see that community tagging is already starting to get adopted out in industry and grow from there.

Will

7:50 AM  
Blogger WebVisum said...

Sam,

Can you give us some detail as to which nifty features you see in IBM's project that do not exit in WebVisum? We're an Open Source project, and like the Firefox development team, we can respond very quickly to requests.

We also like Firefox because it's fast, it's stable and it's very accessible. They are moving web a11y forward as a whole with WAI-ARIA support.
We've found the Firefox accessibility team really great to work with, and we haven't seen much in the way of a11y improvements in IE lately.

Our offering works on Firefox only right now but it supports Windows, Linux, Mac (although Firefox + VoiceOver compatibility is bad right now) and any other systems that run Firefox, for example, the huge mobile market that Firefox is aiming for.

The projects you mentioned are limited to Windows and Internet Explorer, we're not. Those in the know, and those who are just discovering Firefox 3 will probably agree it's currently the most accessible browser, too.

I think we have to concede that the other project may have some benefits too, but look at ours!

8:23 AM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy Comrades!
Initially, I also assumed this was an Internet scam, but my operatives in the Blind Panther Party swear that these claims are all quite true. They have also reported some additional information about Richard and WebVisum
that is even more astounding than the ability to solve CAPTCHA. Comrade Pat, who once worked for DOD, asserts that the Firefox accessibility team has discovered a nano-technological cure for cancer, solved the problem of cold fusion, and they are on the verge of extracting nutritious food from rocks. Suspecting Comrade Pat had robbed the party pharmacy, I asked Comrade Markee to investigate. He reports that all this is true, but that Richard does not “smell human.” Could this be related to BC’s inability to find geographical co-ordinates for this outfit? I’ve appealed to MUFON to watch the skies over Minneapolis. We may have a first contact situation in the works. Take care. I will let BC readers know about further investigatory results post haste!
Regards,
Chairman Mal
Power to the Peeps!

11:50 PM  
Blogger WebVisum said...

Chainman Mal.

Thank you for putting the situation into perspective.

Firefox and its add ons (webvisum is an addon), are an open architecture. A technically inclined computer user can see what is done behind the scenes and put everyone's fears to rest.

Best,
Richard

9:30 AM  

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