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TED@IBM

Chieko Asakawa: How new technology helps blind people explore the world

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How can technology help improve our quality of life? How can we navigate the world without using the sense of vision? Inventor and IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa, who's been blind since the age of fourteen, is working on answering these questions. In a charming demo, she shows off some new technology that's helping blind people explore the world ever more independently ... because, she suggests, when we design for greater accessibility, everyone benefits.

- Visionary inventor
Dr. Chieko Asakawa invents technology to make the visually impaired more independent. Full bio

You might think there are
many things that I can't do
00:20
because I cannot see.
00:23
That's largely true.
00:26
Actually, I just needed
to have a bit of help
00:27
to come up to the stage.
00:30
But there is also a lot that I can do.
00:32
This is me rock climbing
for the first time.
00:35
Actually, I love sports
and I can play many sports,
00:39
like swimming, skiing, skating,
scuba diving, running and so on.
00:43
But there is one limitation:
00:49
somebody needs to help me.
00:52
I want to be independent.
00:54
I lost my sight at the age of 14
in a swimming pool accident.
00:57
I was an active, independent teenager,
01:02
and suddenly I became blind.
01:05
The hardest thing for me
was losing my independence.
01:08
Things that until then seemed simple
became almost impossible to do alone.
01:13
For example, one of my
challenges was textbooks.
01:19
Back then, there were no
personal computers,
01:24
no Internet, no smartphones.
01:26
So I had to ask one of my two brothers
to read me textbooks,
01:29
and I had to create
my own books in Braille.
01:34
Can you imagine?
01:38
Of course, my brothers
were not happy about it,
01:40
and later, I noticed they were not there
whenever I needed them.
01:43
(Laughter)
01:47
I think they tried to stay away from me.
01:48
I don't blame them.
01:52
I really wanted to be freed
from relying on someone.
01:54
That became my strong desire
to ignite innovation.
01:59
Jump ahead to the mid-1980s.
02:04
I got to know cutting-edge technologies
02:06
and I thought to myself,
02:09
how come there is no computer technology
02:11
to create books in Braille?
02:15
These amazing technologies
must be able to also help people
02:18
with limitations like myself.
02:22
That's the moment
my innovation journey began.
02:25
I started developing
digital book technologies,
02:30
such as a digital Braille editor,
digital Braille dictionary
02:34
and a digital Braille library network.
02:39
Today, every student who is visually
impaired can read textbooks,
02:43
by using personal computers
and mobile devices,
02:47
in Braille or in voice.
02:51
This may not surprise you,
02:53
since everyone now has digital books
in their tablets in 2015.
02:56
But Braille went digital
many years before digital books,
03:01
already in the late 1980s,
almost 30 years ago.
03:07
Strong and specific needs
of the blind people
03:13
made this opportunity to create
digital books way back then.
03:17
And this is actually not
the first time this happened,
03:23
because history shows us
accessibility ignites innovation.
03:28
The telephone was invented
while developing a communication tool
03:35
for hearing impaired people.
03:39
Some keyboards were also invented
to help people with disabilities.
03:41
Now I'm going to give you
another example from my own life.
03:48
In the '90s, people around me
started talking about the Internet
03:52
and web browsing.
03:56
I remember the first time
I went on the web.
03:58
I was astonished.
04:02
I could access newspapers
at any time and every day.
04:04
I could even search
for any information by myself.
04:08
I desperately wanted to help the blind
people have access to the Internet,
04:13
and I found ways to render the web
into synthesized voice,
04:19
which dramatically simplified
the user interface.
04:24
This led me to develop
the Home Page Reader in 1997,
04:28
first in Japanese and later,
translated into 11 languages.
04:34
When I developed the Home Page Reader,
04:39
I got many comments from users.
04:42
One that I strongly remember said,
04:45
"For me, the Internet
is a small window to the world."
04:49
It was a revolutionary moment
for the blind.
04:55
The cyber world became accessible,
04:59
and this technology that we created
for the blind has many uses,
05:01
way beyond what I imagined.
05:06
It can help drivers listen to their emails
05:08
or it can help you listen
to a recipe while cooking.
05:12
Today, I am more independent,
05:18
but it is still not enough.
05:20
For example, when I approached
the stage just now, I needed assistance.
05:23
My goal is to come up here independently.
05:30
And not just here.
05:34
My goal is to be able to travel
and do things that are simple to you.
05:35
OK, now let me show you
the latest technologies.
05:42
This is a smartphone app
that we are working on.
05:45
(Video) Electronic voice: 51 feet
to the door, and keep straight.
05:50
EV: Take the two doors to go out.
The door is on your right.
05:57
EV: Nick is approaching. Looks so happy.
06:07
Chieko Asakawa: Hi, Nick!
06:09
(Laughter)
06:10
CA: Where are you going?
You look so happy.
06:11
Nick: Oh -- well, my paper
just got accepted.
06:14
CA: That's great! Congratulations.
06:16
Nick: Thanks. Wait -- how'd you know
it was me, and that I look happy?
06:17
(Chieko and Nick laugh)
06:21
Man: Hi.
06:22
(Laughter)
06:24
CA: Oh ... hi.
06:25
EV: He is not talking to you,
but on his phone.
06:27
EV: Potato chips.
06:36
EV: Dark chocolate with almonds.
06:45
EV: You gained 5 pounds since yesterday;
take apple instead of chocolate.
06:48
(Laughter)
06:51
EV: Approaching.
06:54
EV: You arrived.
07:00
CA: Now ...
07:02
(Applause)
07:04
Thank you.
07:08
So now the app navigates me
07:09
by analyzing beacon signals
and smartphone sensors
07:12
and permits me to move around
indoor and outdoor environments
07:16
all by myself.
07:21
But the computer vision part
that showed who is approaching,
07:23
in which mood -- we are still
working on that part.
07:27
And recognizing facial expressions
is very important for me to be social.
07:32
So now the fusions of technologies
are ready to help me
07:39
see the real world.
07:45
We call this cognitive assistance.
07:47
It understands our surrounding world
07:51
and whispers to me in voice
or sends a vibration to my fingers.
07:55
Cognitive assistance will augment
missing or weakened abilities --
08:02
in other words, our five senses.
08:08
This technology is only in an early stage,
08:11
but eventually, I'll be able to find
a classroom on campus,
08:14
enjoy window shopping
08:19
or find a nice restaurant
while walking along a street.
08:21
It will be amazing if I can find you
on the street before you notice me.
08:26
It will become my best buddy, and yours.
08:31
So, this really is a great challenge.
08:36
It is a challenge
that needs collaboration,
08:40
which is why we are creating
an open community
08:44
to accelerate research activities.
08:47
Just this morning, we announced
the open-source fundamental technologies
08:51
you just saw in the video.
08:56
The frontier is the real world.
08:58
The blind community is exploring
this technical frontier
09:01
and the pathfinder.
09:06
I hope to work with you
to explore the new era,
09:08
and the next time that I'm on this stage,
09:12
through technology and innovation,
09:15
I will be able to walk up here
09:17
all by myself.
09:19
Thank you so much.
09:21
(Applause)
09:22

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About the Speaker:

Chieko Asakawa - Visionary inventor
Dr. Chieko Asakawa invents technology to make the visually impaired more independent.

Why you should listen

Dr. Chieko Asakawa is an IBM Fellow who has been instrumental in furthering accessibility research and development for the past three decades. Challenging thinking on visually impaired technology usage, she leads the development in advancing web accessibility including digital Braille and voice browsers.

The government of Japan awarded the 2013 Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon to Dr. Asakawa for her outstanding contributions to accessibility research, including the development of a voice browser for the visually impaired. Today, with Carnegie Mellon University, she is working on how accessibility technologies can play a key role in the real world to help create opportunities for more people to actively participate in the society.

More profile about the speaker
Chieko Asakawa | Speaker | TED.com