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Culture

Lend Me an Eye

With the help of the new computer network "See4me", people with sight can now see 4 the blind.

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Blind people are still not recognised as computer users

Friday evening and Joachim Frank is getting ready for a night on the town. But for the visually impaired like Frank, deciding on the right coloured tie can be a sheer unfathomable obstacle.

However, with a new computer network developed by once nearly blind Joachim Frank and his company Audiodata, detecting matching socks or telling the difference between a tin of peas and a tin of dog food may no longer prove an obstacle to the blind. Audiodata's "See4me" is a communication system which enables a blind person to "show" a person with sight an object via computer and ask for his, or her advice.

Bringing colour in a black world

Current assistance to the blind working with computers include speech programmes and keyboard supplements for reading braille. With the help of the See4me network, blind users can connect to users that can see and, with the assistance of a webcam or scanner, ask for their help to distinguish colours or read documents.

"The system is a particular help when it comes to images or handwriting", Frank says. With See4me, people with eyesight can now describe a postcard to its blind recipient. And as scanners, a not uncommon utensil used by blind computer workers, can only "read" type face, blind people can now find out what is written on holiday postcards and greeting cards.

Security and trust

But is the transmission of personal documents safe? According to Mr. Frank, catching a virus is virtually impossible as the system only functions with images and speech. But, despite sending only encoded messages, "trust is an essential" in the See4me network. For the future, Audiodata has planned a team of "trusted viewers" to give answers to personal or legal matters and who are obliged to keep information to themselves.

At currrent any personal, or even unwanted information is filtered out manually. 20 blind "askers" and 50 "viewers" are currently testing See4me, which was invented by Joachim Frank in March 2000. Frank hopes to bring the testphase to an end in the coming summer.

A global problem

According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness around 45 million people, including 1,5 million children suffer from blindness. With the help of See4me, Joachim Frank hopes to enable and encourage blind people to work with computers all over the world.

According to Frank, who was almost blind as a child and had 7 operations before being able to visit a "normal" school, blind people are still not recognised as being able to work with computers. With the help of his non-profit organisation "KlickBlick" and the See4me technology, he hopes to spread the word that using a computer is no longer an obstacle for the visually impaired – especially when it comes to "seeing" images and graphics – essential for using and enjoying the net. "See4me builds bridges between the community of the blind and those with sight", Frank says.

A global view

Visually impaired Mary Barbean has been working with computers for years. Alongside Braille and voice technology, a webcam is now part of her office equipment. With the help of See4me Barbean, who’s eyesight is partially impaired, can now see colours.

She is well aware that the assistance, which is voluntary, may have come from someone hundreds of kilometres away.

"Our aim is to connect people who are blind and who can see all over the world", Frank says. With the help of the universal language English, millions of blind and people with sight may one day be able to chat with another via the computer – and See4me.

However, as 90% of the blind are said to live in developing countries, Frank’s hopes that the See4me technology may be simplified with the introduction of umts – mobile phones with built in screens - may be restricted to the western world. The non-profit organisation "KlickBlick" hopes to garner support which may make systems such as See4me possible for those who have not yet reached first world communication progress yet.

Anytime, any place

The price for asking questions is, when the system is hopefully launched this summer, set at 25 cent per minute. It can be used any time, and with umts phones, any place.

See4me may help the sight-impaired find suitable coloured socks. But finding matching pairs in heaps of washing is still a problem no technology can solve yet.

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