Friday, April 10, 2009
Max, The Guide Dog of Second Life
Location: Kennesaw State University Campus & Wheelies On the Water
It sounds odd that a world as visual as Second Life now has a growing number of residents with visual impairments. The client itself provides some daunting hurdles, since screen readers cannot access SL inventory. This really limits the ability of the visually impaired to enjoy SL's content.
That is changing fast. During the recent conference on Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, I attended a workshop with Polgara Paine, Louise Later, and Max, the star of the show. Max is a guide dog for avatars.
When Louise was new to SL, it took her one week to get to Wheelies, a region dedicated to assisting residents with disabilities. Louise wears white because she has central vision in one eye. She can locate her avatar more quickly because white rezzes first on her screen.
Polgara met Louise and accompanied her at first. This limited them both, and Louise decided that she wanted to use a guide dog. Her first dog was a prop, attached to her left wrist. It cued folks into her visual impairment, and they responded well and with a lot of curiosity.
This hit home to me in a rather unsettling way. I strain to read some of the smaller type in this blog-client, and think how often these days I'm changing prescriptions for my bifocals. Since my mother was legally blind in one eye, and barely sighted in her other, by her early 80s, I wonder about my own eventually use for some of these virtual-world technologies.
As Louise noted, most of us are temporarily able.
Louise was encouraged with the reception that a mere prop had received, so she pressed on with Max, working with scripter Charles Mountain (pictured in the next image) to give the dog radar, then a follow function. I got my own copy of Max and began using simple typed commands to recognize avatars around me, then I asked Max to take me to them. Finally I used Max's help to teleport back to Richmond, since Max can use SL map directions and and has a script inside him to read scripted "Polo objects" as he and his avatar travel SL.
I had added landmarks to Max, each renamed with short names, and then, with a simple typewritten command, I called up the SL map and typed another command to invoke my landmark and teleport me.
The latest version, Max Voice Plus, will send a screen shot of the location to a helper. Charles has added chat-text recognition. So now chat will read to the visually impaired resident. Soon, with a raised braille refreshable display and a text-to-braille program under development, residents will be able to type chat and read chat as braille.
We all took Max home with us. Several old friends, such as Tuxedo Ninetails of the SL Education Roundtable, and Feldie Epstein of The Metaverse Journal, joined the workshop and were as impressed as I was not only by this technology but also by the passion that drove this team to assist others.
Louise ended her talk with a statement by Helen Keller that "Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained though self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
Louise, Polgara, Charles, and the avatars at Wheelies are certainly dedicated to something worthy, and ever more necessary. According to World Health Organization, the population of the blind will double in the next decade. They deserve, Louise notes, the same access to online materials that others have.
Those interested in trying Max can get dogs from Louise or Polgara, or from the bridge at Wheelies on the Water.