T. V. Raman
Advanced Technology Group
November 13, 1996
Immediate and timely access to up- to- date information is likely to prove
critical for the success of both individuals and societies in the coming cen-tury.
As the flood of information increases, the half- life of up- to- date in-formation
diminishes correspondingly. Thus, where a weekly news journal
once sufficed to keep people "well informed", the information age is char-acterized
by constantly updating sources of information.
Success or failure in this age will ultimately be determined by the level
of access that one has to the latest and most reliable sources of information.
Where access to the latest information is a strong advantage, users deprived
of such information suffer from a correspondingly serious handicap. The
most visible manifestation of this is in the case of ready information access
by the visually impaired.
Until now, information interchange has been mediated by a passive in-termediary
—printed paper. Ideas expressed on paper therefore remain dead
until perused by a human. Printed paper is also useless to someone who
cannot see, and until now making information accessible has been a time-consuming
and expensive process. As a consequence, only those items of in-formation
that remain relevant for a sustained period of time e. g., text books,
could be converted to Braille or recorded on audio tape.
Thus, information with a relatively short half- life, e. g., the latest news-papers,
have always remained inaccessible to the blind. Such a deficiency
could be a serious drawback in the information age, and would threaten to
further set back an already disadvantaged group.
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The very enabler of the information revolution, computing technology,
also promises to provide a solution in no uncertain manner. In the world of
electronic documents, ideas are no longer interchanged via a passive inter-mediary.
Instead, information interchange is mediated by an agent capable
of computing on the information.
The social impact of this change is enormous. The computer as the inter-mediary
in information exchange can enable smart documents that capture
information and present it:
where the user wants,
when the user wants, and
the way the user wants!
As in client- server computing, the information provider can play the role of
server and make information available on the network; the user as the client
can access this information in a manner best suited to the individual's needs
Where availability of the latest information online to the average user
is a convenience, to users with special needs these online sources represent
information to which timely access would be otherwise impossible. Such
immediate availability of information will have a profound impact on the
way we live, work, profit, learn, govern, and communicate. Ultimately this
evolution will ensure that the oncoming flood of information raises all boats.
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Once upon a time, ideas were exchanged by word of mouth and passed down ver-bally
through the generations. In this era, information had the ephemeral quality
of existing only in the minds of people. The written word enabled the evolution
of mechanisms to capture and pass down accumulated knowledge; the key feature
of this phase was the ability to reliably record and recall information.
In the era where documents were prepared by qualified scribes, carefully pre-pared
written scrolls represented the means by which information was stored for
posterity. Paper (or papyrus) represented both the repository of information, as
well as the vehicle used to disseminate information. In this phase of the infor-mation
revolution, the written document was available but to a few; the number
of people capable of publishing information were even fewer. This state of af-fairs
went through another dramatic change with Gutenberg's mainstreaming of
the printing press; spreading information via the written word suddenly became
a lot easier, and as a consequence, printed documents became a more generally
available means for communicating ideas.
The concomitant increase in the availability of written information was enor-mous.
In the age of the scribe, the effort involved in publishing meant that only
documents that were perceived as being timeless could be preserved as hand-written
scrolls. With the advent of the printing press, the set of written documents
grew to encompass information that would otherwise not have been represented
by the written word. Notice that as publishing becomes easier, the life span of
information that people can afford to publish falls correspondingly.
As the next phase in this revolution, electronic information promises to em-power
everyone to publish. The corresponding increase in the availability of infor-mation
is enormous. As this tide of information rises, the life span of any single
item of information falls steadily; where once a written scroll was perceived as
representing timeless content, a well- formatted printed advertisement often repre-sents
no more than a piece of worthless junk mail in the era of desktop publishing.
The flood of information is not the only feature of the current phase of the
information revolution. Even though most information is still communicated by
means of printed documents, the paper on which the information is printed is no
longer the sole repository of the information. In the age of electronic information,
printed paper merely represents one of the several vehicles used to disseminate in-formation.
The information itself resides in an electronic form that is in principle
This has a profound impact on how we produce, archive, retrieve and consume
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information. Information is no longer merely stored on paper for consumption by
future generations; instead, electronic communication provides the means to cap-ture
information in a computable form. When this information exchange is me-diated
by an intelligent intermediary —the computer— it opens up the possibility
of producing and consuming information in a multiplicity of formats.
2 Information Is Not Just For Viewing!
The availability of information in a computable formas opposed to a purely visual
representation means that electronic information can be more than just viewed on
a flat two- dimensional display. Where information is only available in its visual
form, e. g., as printed paper, it requires an intelligent human in order to make use
of the ideas represented by the pattern of black and white dots appearing on the
page. Computing technology can offset some of these difficulties; for instance, the
visual image of the page can be digitized to produce an array of black and white
dots, and Optical Character Recognition can be applied to discern the characters
and words from this pattern of dots. However, the underlying structure of the
information, as well as its meaning and purpose remain elusive.
Electronic documents draw their true strength from the fact that today most
documents originate digitally. This means that documents are authored on a com-puter;
as a consequence, the computer has more than the pattern of black and
white dots to work with –computers can now get their hands at the true informa-tion
that gives rise to the final form representation that we are used to seeing as
black marks on white paper.
With access to such rich structural information, computers can present the
information based on a user's needs and abilities. Thus, one can produce high-quality
typeset output suitable for a high- end image- setter, or speak the informa-tion
to afunctionally blind user.
Notice the use of the term functionally blind user in the previous paragraph.
A blind user is characterized by an inability to work with printed information.
This deficiency can be viewed as a mismatch between the demands placed on an
individual by her environment and the means and abilities the individual possesses
to meet these demands. Taking this view, a person using a telephone to access
electronic mail and an automobile driver unable to look at a computer monitor 1
are both (equally) functionally blind with respect to being able to read a printed
1 Automobile drivers should be looking at the road!
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Thus, the technology of audio documents which on the surface appears to be
of relevance only to blind users is in fact useful to a far larger set of people. This is
in fact not a one- off situation of technology designed for users with special needs
impacting a far larger population —how many of us remember that the plain old
telephone was a bi- product of attempts at developing a hearing aid!
Structurally rich electronic documents can be presented in several different
media, and high- quality visual or aural output are just a few examples.
3 Multiple Views Of Electronic Information
Information has been traditionally displayed to a two- dimensional visual tablet.
Visual formatting —the process by which information is visually laid out on the
two- dimensional display in a manner that facilitates easy browsing based on the
underlying information structure— has evolved over the centuries to its current
sophistication. Open your favorite daily newspaper and observe the layout of the
various news items in a manner designed to allow the eye to quickly spot topics
of interest and browse them selectively.
As information technology evolves, it becomes necessary to perform simi-lar
high- quality formatting for other displays including computer monitors and
speech output devices to name a few. Formatting information for the interactive
visual display represented by the computer monitor is still in a state of flux. Once,
it was thought that all that would be required would be to produce a high- fidelity
online representation of the visual layout produced on paper. However, a computer
monitor is hard to roll up and throw across your living room (unlike your favorite
newspaper). In addition, the interactive nature of computer displays means that
many of the assumptions made when laying out information to the static medium
of printed paper need to be reconsidered.
The field of audio formatting —producing renderings of information opti-mized
for an auditory display— is still in its infancy. The notion of audio format-ting
was first introduced in [Ram94] —visit A S T E R (Audio System For Technical
Readings) on the WWW 2 for an interactive demonstration. A S T E R gaverise to
many insights into the issues that come up in rendering information to an auditory
display. Whereas visual interaction is characterized by a passive visual display
that is actively perused by a human, auditory output scrolls linearly past a pas-2
URLhttp:// www. cs. cornell. edu/ home/ raman
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sive listener. This reversal of the active- passive relationship in auditory interfaces
leads to many interesting questions concerning audio browsing —see the relevant
publications found on the WWW 3 . The insight gained from developing and us-ing
A S T E R has been applied in designing a fluent spoken interface to the desktop
—see [Ram96] for a description of the audio desktop provided by Emacspeak 4 .
Electronic communication in the world of networked computing, where struc-turally
rich documents are stored and interchanged via an intelligent intermediary
enables smart documents. Smart documents can be reused, searched and displayed
to multiple media based on the user's requirements. Interactive interfaces based
on this paradigm are in their nascent stage and present enormous potential. As
a new dimension in human computer interaction, speech and audio promises to
enrich our overall information experience in the coming century. The benefits
of this information revolution are not restricted to the technologically advanced
world; in fact their impact and potential benefit is likely to be far greater in parts
of the world where lack of resources and a concomitant negative social attitude
has meant that a large set of disabled individuals have long been placed at a socio-economic
[Gib96] Wayte Gibbs. Envisioning speech. Scientific American, September
[Hay96] Brian Hayes. Speaking of mathematics. American Scientist, 84( 2),
March– April 1996.
[Ram94] T. V. Raman. Audio System for Technical Readings. PhD thesis,
Cornell University, Ithaca NY., May 1994.
URLhttp:// www. cs. cornell. edu/ home/ raman Audio formatted thesis
produced by A S T E R, is available from Recording for the Blind (RFB
order number FB190).
3 URLhttp:// www. cs. cornell. edu/ home/ raman/ publications
4 URLhttp:// www. cs. cornell. edu/ home/ raman/ emacspeak
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[Ram96] T. ~ V. Raman. Emacspeak –a speech interface. Proceedings of CHI96,
[RG94] T. V. Raman and David Gries. Documents mean more than just paper!
Proceedings of the 2nd. International Workshop on the Principles of
Document Processing, 1994.
[Van94] Greg C. Vanderheiden. Building disability access directly into
next- generation information and transaction systems. Keynote Speech,
Of Computing Machinery (ACM) –Tokyo, Japan, March 1994.
URLgopher:// trace. wisc. edu// 00/ ftp/ PUB/ TEXT/ TRACEPAP/ ACMJAPAN. TXT
Trace R& D Center, University Of Wisconsin (Madison).