Science: Talking pictures come to the small screen: As graphics take over from computer text, visually impaired people could be at a disadvantage. George Cole examines developments for the blind

THE WAY computers look, feel and operate has been transformed in recent years. Keyboard commands and simple text displays are being replaced by graphical user interface (GUI) systems deploying a mouse pointing device, on-screen menus and graphics.

More and more computers are incorporating pictures, animations and video. For most people, these changes have made computers easier to operate and software more interesting to use. But these developments may pose a threat for a minority of users: blind and partially sighted people.

There are about one million visually handicapped people in the UK. Around 90,000 blind people are of working age and of these, 80 per cent are without employment. GUI-based computers could make it harder for them to find work - or keep existing jobs.

David Laycock, manager of the Computer Centre for People with Disabilities (CCPD) at the University of Westminster, says: 'Technological developments have given blind people a sense of independence when using a computer. Blind people can now use Braille keyboards, screen magnifiers which enlarge text, optical character readers to change text into computer files and speech synthesisers for improved communication. But GUI systems could leave some behind.'

Alan Booth, chairman of the British Computer Association of the Blind, says: 'GUIs are a tremendous threat, because they make computer screens more visually complex. I know one blind person who has been moved from his job because his department's computer system has moved over to GUI.'

Eric Cameron is a British Telecom employee and also visiting professor at the Department of Applied Computing at the University of Ulster. When he lost his sight five years ago he found that GUI systems made it harder for him to use the same software as his colleagues. 'At the moment, the problem is probably confined to a small number of blind people, but GUIs are going to find their way into general office work,' he says.

Dr John Gill, manager of research and development at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, agrees: 'The problem is going to get worse as the popularity of GUI systems grows.'

The RNIB recently conducted a survey of 33 software companies, in which 93 per cent stated that some of their software was GUI-based. Almost a third produced GUI software only. Of those still producing text-based software, 72 per cent planned to switch over to GUI, while 27 per cent intended to offer text-based alternatives.

The US software giant Microsoft, whose hugely successful Windows system converts MS-DOS computers to GUI, expects to sell around 10 million copies of the program annually.

However, not everyone believes that GUI systems are such a big threat to visually handicapped people. Paul Blenkhorn, a lecturer in the Department of Computation at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, says: 'Some of the concern is misplaced. There are a number of technological solutions to the problem.'

Mr Blenkhorn points out that various companies have produced systems that help to overcome the problems caused by GUIs. In the US, IBM has just launched ScreenReader 2, a pounds 500 package which uses a speech synthesiser to generate an artificial voice that can describe the graphics on the screen to the user. A Californian company, Berkeley Systems, has produced a similar package for Apple Macintosh computers called Outspoken, which can also convert graphics into speech. The company is developing a version for Windows.

A Dutch company, Alva, is developing a Braille display for Windows, while the Canadian company SyntheVoice has produced a speech system called Windows Bridge. The RNIB is a member of a European project called GUIB (Textual and Graphical User Interfaces for Blind People), which aims to develop GUI input and output systems for visually handicapped people.

Professor Cameron agrees with Mr Blenkhorn up to a point: 'The elements for solving the GUI problem are there, but it's a question of integrating them and making the systems cheap enough for the market. I think that there's a wider issue of making computers user-friendly. Blind people are just one of many groups with special needs.'

The arrival of the speech synthesiser was one of the biggest breakthroughs for visually handicapped people. The synthesised voice can be used to describe what is on a computer screen or to confirm commands. The synthesiser may be plugged into the back of a computer or placed on an expansion card which slots inside the PC.

Early versions of voice synthesisers sounded like Daleks, but today's systems sound more natural. Screen-reading software converts on-screen text into speech instructions for the synthesiser. Many programs can also adjust the speed, tone, volume and pitch of the synthesised voice.

A Newcastle-based company, Aptech, has developed a workstation for the visually handicapped which uses a voice recognition system developed by a US company, Dragon Systems. The voice recognition software can recognise up to 25,000 words and thousands of special words or commands, such as 'delete paragraph'.

Aptech is also involved in a project to enable blind people to read a daily newspaper on a computer, making use of the teletext television system. The Electronic Newspaper has been developed by the RNIB, Intelligent Research, Data Broadcasting International and the Guardian. The information is transmitted overnight to a specially adapted computer with a television aerial socket and teletext decoder. The information is stored on a hard disk. The computer also contains a voice synthesiser that reads out the text.

The system means that a blind person could wake up and find today's newspaper sitting inside their computer. 'It is as though the local newsagent had delivered a printed edition of the newspaper through the letter box,' says David Levy, chairman of Intelligent Research.

A German company called Baum Elektronik has developed what is claimed to be the world's first notebook computer for the visually handicapped. The pounds 8,000 machine, known as David, has a Braille display. David is being distributed in Britain by Northampton- based Sight and Sound Technology.

Professor Cameron is exploring the multimedia interfaces for the blind, using various types of sound, such as voice, music and audio cues, and tactile screen systems. Nimbus Information Systems in Monmouth has developed SimpleFace software which enables blind people to use CD-Roms, compact discs that store vast amounts of data.

Nimbus has been collaborating with the Open University's Centre for Information Technology in Education. Its head, Dr Tom Vincent, says: 'The advantage of the SimpleFace is that you only need a speech synthesiser and speech software - there's no need to adapt existing CD-Rom discs.'

However, technology is only part of the solution to helping visually handicapped people cope with new forms of computing. Sue Hitchcock, manager of the RNIB's employment development and technology unit, says that education plays an important part. 'Employers and people with visual disabilities need to realise that there is a lot of technology which can help them use computers, and that the Department of Employment provides grants to help companies purchase equipment.'

Alan Booth would like to see stronger legislation, similar to that in the US, which forces government suppliers to produce computer hardware and software that is suitable for use by people with disabilities.

Aptech, Aptech House, Meadowfield Industrial Estate, Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne NE20 9SD (0661 860999). British Computer Association of the Blind, BCM Box 950, London WC1B 6XX. Nimbus Information Systems, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth NP5 3SR (0600 890682). Sight and Sound Technology, Qantel House, Anglia Way, Moulton Park, Northampton NN3 1JA.

(Photograph omitted)