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A new study led by University of Waterloo Faculty of Mathematics student, Alexandra Vtyurina, who collaborated with Microsoft researchers has created a way to merge a voice assistant with a web browser to allow the visually impaired to surf the web. Called Voice Exploration, Retrieval, and Search, or VERSE, the system understands web context and can help folks traverse web pages fluidly.

“People with visual impairments often rely on screen readers, and increasingly voice-based virtual assistants, when interacting with computer systems,” said Vtyurina. “Virtual assistants are convenient and accessible but lack the ability to deeply engage with content, such as read beyond the first few sentences of an article, list alternative search results and suggestions. In contrast, screen readers allow for deep engagement with accessible content, and provide fine-grained navigation and control, but at the cost of reduced walk-up-and-use convenience.”

“Our prototype, VERSE, adds screen reader-like capabilities to virtual assistants, and allows other devices, such as smartwatches to serve as input accelerators to smart speakers.”

From the release:

The primary input method for VERSE is voice; so, users can say “next”, “previous”, “go back” or “go forward”. VERSE can also be paired with an app, which runs on a smartphone or a smartwatch. These devices can serve as input accelerators, similar to keyboard shortcuts. For example, rotating the crown on a smartwatch advances VERSE to the next search result, section, or paragraph, depending on the navigation mode.

“At the outset, VERSE resembles other virtual assistants, as the tool allows people to ask a question and have it answered verbally with a word, phrase or passage,” said Vtyurina. “VERSE is differentiated by what happens next. If people need more information, they can use VERSE to access other search verticals, for example, news, facts, and related searches, and can visit any article that appears as a search result.

“For articles, VERSE showcases its screen reader superpowers by allowing people to navigate along words, sentences, paragraphs, or sections.”

Photo by Guilherme Vasconcelos on Unsplash


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By John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.