In 2018, I was selected to participate in the Computing Research Association’s Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU). As a DREU intern, I was matched up with a mentor at another university in the country to participate in projects and gain experience in Human-Computer Interaction.

My mentor, Kyle Rector, is a professor in the University of Iowa’s department of Computer Science. Her area of research is in HCI, specializing in accessible technology. For 10 weeks, I assisted an existing project on the design and evaluation of virtual reality for blind users. I also got to work on a project of my own, exploring the accessibility of programming IDEs.

Project 1:

Virtual Showdown is a design and evaluation of inclusive Virtual Reality. The development and use of virtual reality in society has expanded in society but its use fails to include those with visual impairments. Our findings became a publication in 2019 and has been presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow.

Typically, audio cues are used to support visuals within the virtual space. This forces a narrow frame on how information in VR can be communicated, as well as limits the accessibility for users.

To address this, we developed and evaluated Virtual Showdown, a game modeled after the accessible game Showdown, where players use audio cues to locate and hit balls against opponents. Verbal and Verbal/Vibration Scaffolds were developed to teach and guide the game, and the acceptability was assessed in an empirical study with 34 youth who are visually impaired.

Testing for this project took place June 2018, right before my entrance to the internship. Most of my work contributed to the data analysis through brainstorming, qualitative coding and transcribing.

Project 2:

As a personal project during my time in Iowa, I created an add-on for PyCharm, a python based IDE to create a more accessible environment for users with visual impairments. This project was driven by a 2017 study that interviews software developers with visual impairments.

In modern software development, IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) play a critical role in efficient workflow but rely heavily on visual cues. Programming, with the correct logic and support should be an accessible skill, but even accessible environments within IDEs fail to give visually impaired users an understanding of their code to the same level as their sighted counterparts. Workarounds and compatibility issues with their screen readers are often inconvenient and overwhelming, forcing many to default to simpler editors.

My approach used themes from a 2017 study, which surveyed industry professionals with visual impairments. Its findings showed that many users developed their own workarounds to use IDEs to prevent further separation from their colleagues. One of the most popular tools included NVDA, a free and open source screen reader, and one of the most popular professionally used languages was Python. Within the 10 weeks, I developed a plugin that works with NVDA as an add-on rather than a separate tool for optimal accessibility and use. This add-on aims to help sonify effors and help users feel more integrated with coworkers/peers.

My add-on can be found here.

For more details about my time in Iowa, including final presentations and project reports, please visit my DREU blog.