The visually impaired may no longer be cut off from the new world of interactive TV. AOL and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) are launching a research partnership to make interactive TV more available to the visually impaired.

The project will initially focus on the next generation of set-top boxes, specifically making the electronic program guides more accessible. Visually impaired users will take advantage of text-to-speech technology when they want to access interactive content.

"Our project is called the Access to Convergent Media Project, and is dedicated to looking at making different media accessible," Tom Wlodkowski, the project's manager, tells CEDaily.

"We are partnering with AOL on this project because they are now the largest media company and NCAM had an existing relationship with them on other accessibility projects.

"Our plan now is divided into three phases. Phase one is to develop a PC-based application prototype that will be the actual program guide with an audio interface," explains Wlodkowski. "There will be user testing to see if the audio prompting makes sense. We hope to do user testing at the Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in March in Los Angeles.

"Phase two involves looking at the set-top box itself and the tech issues involved. Questions like, what type of speech engine is available and how should information be delivered? This is a good time to be doing this [research] because of the wide range of WAP (wireless applications) and mobile computing choices there are a lot of good possibilities," says Wlodkowski.

Wlodkowski says the partnership doesn't know what shape phase three will take yet because of the tech obstacles in phase two.

"We just want to provide another means of accessing the same information. And we want to develop guidelines for the industry to create products that are user-friendly to all members of the household, whether one is visually impaired, and the others are not. Each should be able to access information in the manner most efficient for their needs," says Wlodkowski. "The electronic program guide is the key entry point to other interactive services available through TV. It's the most logical starting point to then make the rest of those services available to impaired persons."

Wlodkowski is quick to say that AOL does not have to be the only company they will work with on this project. After the research model is in place, NCAM would be happy to speak with other potential partners.