Toronto: Researchers have developed a new voice assistant that allows people with visual impairments to get web content quickly and effortlessly from smart speakers and similar devices.

The research team from University of Waterloo found a way to merge the best elements of voice assistants with screen readers to create a tool called “Voice Exploration, Retrieval and Search (VERSE)” that makes web searches easier.

The primary input method for VERSE is voice, so users can say “next”, “previous”, “go back” or “go forward”.

VERSE can also be paired with an app, which runs on a smartphone or a smartwatch.

“Our prototype VERSE adds screen reader-like capabilities to virtual assistants and allows other devices, such as smartwatches to serve as input accelerators to smart speakers,” said study researcher Alexandra Vtyurina.

According to the team, virtual assistants are convenient and accessible but lack the ability to deeply engage with content such as read beyond the first few sentences of an article, list alternative search results and suggestions.

These devices can serve as input accelerators, similar to keyboard shortcuts. For example, rotating the crown on a smartwatch advances VERSE to the next search result, section or paragraph, depending on the navigation mode.

In the study, 53 visually impaired web searchers were surveyed. More than half of the respondents reported using voice assistants multiple times a day, and a vast range of devices such as smart speakers, phones and smart TVs.

“At the outset, VERSE resembles other virtual assistants as the tool allows people to ask a question and have it answered verbally with a word, phrase or passage,” Vtyurina said.

VERSE is differentiated by what happens next.

If people need more information, they can use VERSE to access other search verticals, for example, news, facts and related searches and can visit any article that appears as a search result.

The study is scheduled to be presented at the 21st International “ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility” to be held in October in the US.

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