“When I started out there was no assistive technology,” Japanese-born Dr Asakawa says.
“I couldn’t read any information by myself. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself.”
Those “painful experiences” set her on a path of learning that began with a computer science course for blind people, and a job at IBM soon followed. She started her pioneering work on accessibility at the firm, while also earning her doctorate.
Dr Asakawa is behind early digital Braille innovations and created the world’s first practical web-to-speech browser. Those browsers are commonplace these days, but 20 years ago, she gave blind internet users in Japan access to more information than they’d ever had before.
Now she and other technologists are looking to use AI to create tools for visually impaired people.
For example, Dr Asakawa has developed NavCog, a voice-controlled smartphone app that helps blind people navigate complicated indoor locations.
Low-energy Bluetooth beacons are installed roughly every 10m (33ft) to create an indoor map. Sampling data is collected from those beacons to build “fingerprints” of a specific location.
“We detect user position by comparing the users’ current fingerprint to the server’s fingerprint model,” she says.