A version of this article was first published on the Financial Express
Microsoft Research Asia in collaboration with Chinese Science Academy and Peiching Union University has developed a prototype which translates sign language into spoken language and spoken language into sign language in real-time. This revolutionary technique will enable hearing-impaired individuals to communicate effectively by simply using sign language. Similarly, Microsoft Seeing AI is aimed at helping people who are visually-impaired to understand more about who and what is around them. A research project, Seeing AI, combines image recognition and natural language processing to describe a person’s surroundings, read text, answer questions and even identify emotions on people’s faces. Seeing AI can be used through smartphone app or smart glass app and can help people to achieve more.
Microsoft 3D-soundscape is a navigational headset built in collaboration with a charitable trust named ‘Gods Guides’. It works like a satellite navigation system for visually-impaired individuals. On using the headsets, such individuals hear certain sounds which tells them about the present location, thus enabling them to create a picture of the area in their mind so that they can easily walk on the roads without the help of any stick or partner.
These are some of the many initiatives that Microsoft Corp is working on so as to make life easier and more productive for differently-abled people. The tech giant is working on assistive technology products such as screen readers, magnifiers and specialty accessibility hardware which are essential to accelerate disability inclusion in any country. Inclusively designed technologies such as Learning Tools Immersive Reader, OneNote and Office Lens are some of the technologies from the tech leader which promise ease-of-use across all platforms. “We are working on accessible technology for everyone, for all ages and abilities. We believe there are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it,” says Madhu Khatri, associate general counsel and accessibility lead, Microsoft India. “A market-driven ecosystem is the best environment for encouraging greater accessibility for all users.”
The global assistive technology market is a $13 billion market today and caters to less than 1% of the one billion strong community of persons with disability. The visually impaired form the biggest share with a population of 285 million and technological innovation will be their champion for a world of equal opportunities. In India, Microsoft in collaboration with LV Prasad Eye Institute, recently launched Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare (MINE). This is a mission-driven global consortium of like-minded commercial, research and academic institutions, who have joined hands to use Artificial Intelligence to help eliminate preventive blindness and scale delivery of eyecare services worldwide.
The company’s disability Employee Resource Group (ERG) was formed in 2009 from constituents of 10 different employee networks. The ERG represents employees with conditions such as hearing loss, blindness, visual impairments, ADD, mobility disabilities and dyslexia This group works with Microsoft initiatives to improve products for accessibility and support experiences for customers with disabilities who have accessibility questions.
Anil Bhansali, MD, Microsoft India R&D, says digital transformation will advance health outcomes forward and will fundamentally change lives by making them safer and healthier, and bringing significant environmental benefits. “We believe that all people, regardless of their age or abilities, can do amazing things when empowered by technology. It not only leads the industry in accessibility innovation, but also drives several initiatives to nurture diverse talent across gender, abilities and generations”.
The Microsoft Accessibility Learning Sessions is aimed at building awareness of accessibility among special educators and computer instructors who work with students with varied disabilities, so that they can in turn, optimise the use of technology in their teaching, thus making it far easier for their students to see, hear and use technology. In addition, Microsoft also provides accessibility guides, curriculum resources, teacher training workshops, and inspiring videos, to help students with disabilities learn with technology. Microsoft Initiatives including ‘Code For Honor’ and ‘Microsoft App Fests’ promote apps development that are accessible and address needs of those with disabilities.
With diversity and inclusion being a core focus, Microsoft is commited to remove barriers to technology access. Creating technologies that are accessible by design, Microsoft enables one to personalise the PC to make it more comfortable and easier to use. A group of utilities and services clubbed in ‘Ease of Access’ centre help users to interact with technologies seamlessly. Other accessible features of Windows include magnifier, narrator, high contrast, closed captions, keyboard, and mouse that can address a range of learning preferences as well as difficulties and impairments.
Again, Microsoft OneNote is an enabler in the Special Needs Classroom. OneNote provides users with option to read content using text-to-speech (immersive reading mode) or dictate using speech-to-text. By doing listening assignments using the immersive reader tool of OneNote, differently-abled people can improve their ability to hear, process and implement the instruction/read text.
This not only helps them deal with the given assignment at their pace and choice of time but also gives them exposure to adapt to a variety of voice instructions. Users can also personalise the text by changing the font size, letter and word spacing for a comfortable learning experience.