Problem: More than 38 million people worldwide have low or no vision. To use the Web, many use screen readers, which speak on-screen text aloud. But this software is expensive and is rarely installed on public computers in libraries or cybercafés; in such places, simple tasks such as confirming flight information or checking e-mail can be impossible for blind users.
Solution: As a graduate student at the University of Washington, Jeffrey Bigham created WebAnywhere, a free screen reader that can be used with practically any Web browser on any operating system–no special software required. Users start at webanywhere.cs.washington.edu; from there, they can use keyboard commands to navigate to any Web page. While other screen readers synthesize speech from text locally, WebAnywhere fetches speech from a central server and sends the audio to the user’s computer. “The potential is there for big lag times between when the user presses a button and gets speech back,” says Bigham, now an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Rochester. “Pretty much everyone thought that this latency problem would kill us.” To speed things up, he created a model that predicts which parts of a page a user is most likely to interact with, such as links, and preëmptively fetches audio describing that content. The result is that WebAnywhere sends synthesized speech to users within a fraction of a second. –Stephen Cass