Europe Oct 24, 2011
A partially-sighted computer programmer is launching software that could revolutionize the lives of millions of blind and elderly people across the world.
The ground-breaking ‘text to speech’ software converts complex listings from web TV guides into speech. It lets users go to any channel or internet player, go up and down or pause listing, access detailed programnme descriptions and even record featured listings.
It works on Macs, PCs, iPhones, Androids and tablets.
Developer Ian Sharpe is a member of web accessibility group W3C, the internet standards organisation founded by world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.
From his office in Ramsey, Mr Sharpe said: ‘Many sighted people don’t understand that blind, partially-sighted and elderly people rely on the television for information and listen to a lot of entertainment and sport on the box.
‘Currently, to check what’s on and when most blind people have great difficulty. For most browsing websites they use what’s called a screen reader. It’s a basic tool which, when connected to an external speaker, dictates everything on the web page starting top left to bottom right in order of appearance.
‘It can be incredibly frustrating to navigate. It’s time-consuming and, in the case of complex TV listings, a futile process,’ he said.
Ian felt that with his experience in computers he could develop a user-friendly reading tool.
In recent years, visually-impaired digital or Sky box subscribers memorised channels by number.
So, for example, 101 is BBC1, 102 is BBC2 and so on. However, viewers are often frustrated as channel numbers can change, meaning they get confused.
Executives from the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) recently shamed television executives who said a talking digibox was impossible.
They developed Smart Talk – a Freeview box that announces what’s on each channel, and at what time, so visually-impaired people can listen to the on-screen menus to help them to find exactly what they’re looking for.
‘It’s an excellent system and a step in right direction,’ said Ian. ‘But it does have its drawbacks.’
A digibox is static, whereas Ian’s invention is web-based and portable using modern 3G phones and wi-fi connectivity.
‘Also, RNIB boxes cost £150 each, whereas The Talking TV Guide could easily be free for the end user,’ Ian said.
Opening up the programme on his PC Ian demonstrates the Talking TV Guide.
It’s highly intuitive, as one might expect having been developed by someone who is visually-impaired.
Content has been customised to remove clutter. So easy is the system to use that Ian believes sighted people would definitely use the service to plan their viewing.
‘It’s great fun to use and a variety of very high-quality accents adds further appeal,’ he said.
One of the project’s biggest challenges was the provision of high-quality text-to-speech across the range of modern media devices.
‘I found an altruistic firm in Poland called Ivona, worldwide leaders in automated speech software,’ he said.
‘They have been brilliant by providing their services free while the project was being developed.
‘And we could incorporate hundreds of their different languages in the application with the push of a button – even minority ones like Manx Gaelic.’
Now that the project is set to launch, the 40-year-old Paralympian hopes to make money from his invention by selling the intellectual property rights to one of the big players in the market.
‘I am approaching Sky, Virgin Media and others. The capacity to integrate within their systems is exciting.
‘I envisage this same application and underlying technology working well for fans of internet poker and bingo, literally opening up the games to millions of people who have previously been overlooked.’
Other avenues available to the father-of-three are an annual subscription, similar to the blind Radio Times, or, if some wealthy backer wants to cover the cost of development, the system could be made freely available to millions of visually impaired and blind people worldwide, he said.
Worldwide there are 165 million visually-impaired and 795 million who can’t read with 650 million dyslexics.
‘It’s so versatile, imagine a fully interactive talking version of the Manx Independent on the web with technologies run locally from any platform, now wouldn’t that be fantastic?’
For more information see www.talkingtvguide.com or contact Ian Sharpe on 470877 or at email@example.com