Frustrated by the difficulty of incorporating charts into his school reports, Hesham Kamel, a blind engineering student at the University of California at Berkeley, has designed a computer-drawing program that permits the visually impaired to create -- and "see" -- illustrations, graphics and other images on the screen.
Kamel, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, has set his sights on refining the prototype, dubbed Integrated Communication 2 Draw, into a viable commercial product.
"There's nothing else out there that can help me create and view graphics," said Kamel, 40, who lost his vision 17 years ago through a surgeon's error. "With the IC2D, blind people can use screen readers paired with voice synthesizers to literally hear text on the computer screen."
Taking advantage of the universal familiarity with the layout of a telephone keypad, the program divides the screen into nine squares, each labeled with the corresponding numbers "1" through "9." Moving from square to square is just like dialing a telephone number. Each time a user enters a square, he or she has the option of subdividing it into another three-by-three grid, zooming in on increasingly finer details in the drawing. The program is capable of repeating the progression 81 times for a total of 729 possible squares.
The recognizable keypad arrangement replaces the traditional computer staple of pull-down menus -- which present a challenge to blind users -- for controlling commands, shapes, lines and colors. When pointing a cursor at a particular cell, the navigator can ask for audio feedback that describes the location -- for example, square 1 -- or the shapes or pictures represented within.
The system can enable the blind to draw and create animations for school, pleasure or work, said Kamel, who has been showing off the evolving project at conferences on human-computer interaction and assistive technology since 1999, in the United States and Europe. He will present the latest model July 8-10 at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
When he describes his software, Kamel likes to involve the audience in an exercise that demonstrates the struggle the visually impaired face when drawing, particularly on a computer. Standing in the center of the room, palm extended toward his listeners, he asks them to point at his hand, close their eyes, move their finger to another object, then return it to its original position, site now unseen.
"Nine-nine percent of the time, I get the whole audience laughing because they're not on target," Kamel said.
Therein lies the challenge for those who cannot see. Once they pick up their pen or move their mouse, how do they locate the next point or return to the previous one to continue drawing?
Kamel used the simplified phone keypad patterns to help blind users locate those points. In place of the impractical pull-down menus, he converted and organized the program's functions into four more blind-friendly palettes, also set up in telephone keypad formation. One palette includes file options, such as saving a picture. A second is devoted to predefined colors and a third to shapes. The fourth palette contains functions that allow users to create animation.
Kamel is asked often why those without sight would need to draw something they cannot see.
"There are many people out there who can't understand that blind people have imaginations, just as sighted people do," he said. "For me, it's all about independence."
It is a lesson learned over his sightless years.
"After I became blind, I found out that most sighted people think that blind people have little or no independence. For example, the prevailing attitude is if you cannot see a piece of steak, then someone has to cut it for you. If you're going to an unfamiliar place, then someone has to travel with you. And if you cannot see the computer screen, then someone has to do the work for you," Kamel told United Press International.
"I wanted to make a little contribution and change some of that. One of the main ideas behind IC2D is providing a method for blind people to deal with graphical output without the assistance of a sighted person. It was also important to make the software not dependent on bulky, expensive external devices in order to increase the user's mobility and make the application more widely available."
The IC2D software is a remarkable achievement, said James Landay, associate professor of computer science at Berkeley and Kamel's thesis advisor who inspired and guided the project.
"It has been amazing to see some of the drawings that Hesham's blind research participants have created," Landay told UPI. "These are drawings they never could have made before. One man blind since birth drew a side view of a car that's as good as anything I could draw!"
Victoria Hahn of Susanville, Calif., who has been testing the product since 1999, is sold on the software.
"I think the program is fantastic and extremely usable," said Hahn, a blind mother of five grown children who is pursuing a degree and career in art. "It takes a matter of minutes to pick up on the system, on how it works and how to use the different levels and access the different shapes and colors. Each time you move your cursor, the program tells you what colors you have chosen. This makes it accessible to visually impaired or color blind or totally blind people."
The audio portion detailing every step enables her to visualize what she is creating but cannot see, Hahn told UPI.
"As a visually impaired person, I see great things happening if this system becomes commercially available, with a wide variety of uses -- by students for charts or graphs for their presentations, by professors for teaching materials, by business people for instant illustration at company meetings," Hahn said.
The computing industry has made some strides in developing software for the blind, but programs -- especially for drawing -- remain few, and many of them are expensive and require unwieldy equipment to operate.
"When you look at technology, the trend is for things to get smaller, faster and cheaper," Kamel said. "That hasn't been true for technology for the blind. The devices we need to use computers -- such as a 50-pound Braille printer -- are large, expensive or both."
IC2D is portable and compatible with any computer screen reader for the blind.
"I must have tried everything on the market, and there isn't any other program like this," Hahn said.
It was this limited availability that inspired Kamel four years ago to pursue his project. As a graduate student, he became frustrated one day when he failed to meet an assignment deadline because he could not produce the graphics. The person who was supposed to draw the illustrations for him was on vacation.
"I had to ask for an extension to turn in the report," Kamel recalled. "Later, at a meeting with my adviser, discussing drawing, he looked at me and said, 'Why don't you work on something so you can draw by yourself?' This sentence was literally what started my Ph.D. research, which evolved into IC2D."
Kamel said he inspected every detail of digital drawing by the blind, which he compared to a situation as challenging for a sighted person as using a computer with the monitor turned off.
"I studied the advantages and disadvantages of currently available drawing tools for the blind, some of which mimic a pencil and paper," he recalled. "I wanted to let the blind user have control over the screen, so that they could move a cursor to a specific location and know exactly where it is. I also wanted them to be able to move the cursor away to perform another task and then relocate the original point exactly."
The resulting program underwent a number of transformations, many of them guided by input from the 22 volunteers, ages 19 to 55 -- some sighted, some blindfolded, some visually impaired, some blind -- who have tested the system over the years.
"In my final usability study, blind participants' own responses indicated that the grid interface was intuitive," Kamel said. "Most of them remarked that they appreciated the interface because it allowed them to know where they were at all times."
The artwork produced ranged from a cube and the side view of a car to a cartoonish pig and a detailed Christmas tree.
"IC2D allowed the users to make precise drawings and view drawings done by other users, both sighted and blind," Kamel said. "The animation feature, which has not yet been formally user-tested, allows blind users to make computer-based animations for the first time."
Eventually, Kamel said, he hopes the software will enable other blind users to master such projects as designing Web sites and he would like to sell the program commercially.
"The visually impaired people who tried it were interested in getting it, so I think this could become a commercial product for a limited segment of the population," Landay said.
"I think there might be enough (interest) to make a viable small business," John Freeman, Helzel Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, told UPI.
"Kamel's product sounds very interesting and potentially very useful to the visually impaired," added John Myers, professor emeritus at Haas.
"The current depressed economic environment is not the best time to be launching a product, but if there is demand for it and the product is 'good,' it can still be done," Myers told UPI.
Kamel said his ultimate goal transcends commercial viability.
"More than anything, I want to change the way people think when they develop technology for the visually impaired," he said.
"What Hashem has accomplished is amazing," Landay said. "He felt he could have a lot of impact because of his different perspective, and what he's achieved can have an impact on all of us, the blind and the sighted."