At the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), we have the distinct privilege of honoring our nation’s greatest innovators. By using their creative problem-solving skills, our Inductees have developed solutions for some of the world’s most challenging problems, and in doing so, they have improved the lives of people everywhere. Because our Inductees rejected the status quo and worked to improve society, often their lives and stories are incredibly inspiring.
One Hall of Famer who personifies dedication and perseverance is 2019 Inductee Chieko Asakawa. Despite an early childhood accident that led to permanent blindness at age 14, Asakawa would go on to pursue her passion for science and would later become a pioneering figure in making technology accessible. She is the inventor of the Home Page Reader, the first practical voice browser to provide effective internet access for blind and visually impaired computer users.
While Asakawa was initially worried about what her unexpected accident would mean for the rest of her life, she made the decision at a young age to do whatever it took to lead a productive and active life. She started learning Braille at age 15 and became so good at reading English Braille, that she earned a degree in English literature from Otemon Gakuin University in Osaka, Japan in 1982.
While considering what type of work to pursue after college, she came across an article that changed everything.
“I read an article about a blind person who became a computer engineer,” Asakawa said in an interview with NIHF. After reading this story, she found a special two-year computer programming course specialized for blind people.
After completing this program, she was offered a position as a visiting researcher at IBM Research - Tokyo, where the company needed someone to help develop an English to Braille translation system. Her experience as an English literature major, combined with her abilities as a computer programmer, made her a perfect fit for the job.
The desire to innovate
While Asakawa was at first nervous about leaving her home in Osaka and moving to Tokyo for a position at IBM, her desire for independence compelled her to take the position.
“I really wanted to be independent,” Asakawa said. “I wanted to be freed from relying on someone, and this gave me the desire to innovate later in life.”
At IBM, she quickly began working on different digital Braille projects, including a Braille editing system and a Braille network system. With the introduction of the internet in the 1990s, Asakawa was astonished by how much information it provided users, and she wanted to give visually impaired people the ability to access these resources.
“The Home Page Reader became available in 1997,” Asakawa said. “At that time, graphical user interfaces were not very suitable for blind people, but the Home Page Reader allowed blind people to access the web by just using the number keys and synthesized voice.”
This intuitive voice browser was revolutionary. It was quickly translated into 11 different languages. “I was not sure how it was going to be accepted, but soon after it became available, I received many [positive] comments from users all over the world,” Asakawa said.
Making the impossible possible
In 2004, Asakawa earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Tokyo, and in 2009 she became an IBM fellow.
She launched the Cognitive Assistance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University and today is focused on developing a technology called “NavCog,” an indoor navigation system that allows blind people to move around complicated indoor locations such as schools, airports and hospitals.
Using accurate localization algorithms, her team has created a device that allows users to move around independently. “After we conducted our user study, everybody said that with NavCog, they are able to move around by themselves with confidence and be independent,” Asakawa said.
When asked to speak about her legacy as an inventor, Asakawa described her pride in being able to combine innovation and the deployment of those new technologies. “Without innovation, we cannot achieve higher goals, but without deployment, we can’t change society,” Asakawa said. “My motto is to make the impossible possible by never giving up.”
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