Luwrain: an op­er­at­ing sys­tem for the blind


Rus­sian devel­oper Mikhail Pozhi­daev, him­self vis­ually im­paired, has cre­ated a free op­er­at­ing sys­tem for the blind, which is sim­ple to use and com­pat­i­ble with all plat­forms.

“A. E. E. En­ter. Com­mand. S.U.D.O. En­ter...,” the “voice as­sis­tant” calls out as Mikhail fran­ti­cally types on the key­board of his com­puter. “You see, I’m no slower than a sighted per­son,” proudly an­nounces the young man.

The 32-year-old Mikhail Pozhi­daev lost his sight at the age of 17 af­ter suf­fer­ing a reti­nal de­tach­ment, as he was pre­par­ing to en­ter the first-year com­puter stud­ies pro­gram at the State Univer­sity of Tomsk in Siberia. “I un­der­went 14 sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures, to no avail,” he re­calls bit­terly.

Mikhail de­cided to take a break in his stud­ies in or­der to get used to his new con­di­tion. He com­pletely re­in­stalled all soft­ware on his com­puter and searched for IT tools avail­able for the blind, such as Jaws For Win­dows, which reads the text dis­played on the screen and al­lows the per­son to nav­i­gate in the tra­di­tional of­fice en­vi­ron­ment with the help of a “voice as­sis­tant.” Re­turn­ing to the univer­sity in 2002, the young as­pir­ing devel­oper soon re­al­ized that these read­ily avail­able so­lu­tions were not suited to his needs. “These tools do not per­mit a per­son to en­gage in com­puter pro­gram­ming work, and are ex­tremely slow — they force one to work in an en­vi­ron­ment orig­i­nally de­signed to be op­er­ated by a mouse, which is in­con­ceiv­able for a vis­ually im­paired per­son,” he ex­plains.

Mikhail there­fore switched to us­ing the GNU/Linux op­er­at­ing sys­tem, which al­lowed him to cre­ate a cus­tom­ized work en­vi­ron­ment. Freed from the re­straints im­posed by win­dows and other such menus, the young man re­gained the de­sir­able “cruis­ing speed,” com­pleted his stud­ies in 2007, at the same time as his fel­low class­mates, and has kept in con­tact with them. In 2010, his peers, im­pressed by his achieve­ments, sug­gest the idea to make his pro­gram avail­able to all peo­ple.

This is how Luwrain got its first lines of code back in in 2012. Three years later, the draft made by Mikhail turned into an op­er­at­ing sys­tem in its own right. It con­sists of a no-frills black­back­ground mon­i­tor and a main menu of­fer­ing var­i­ous cat­e­gories — news, notepad, au­dio player, etc. — all ac­ces­si­ble with sim­ple tap­ping on the arrow keys of the key­board. Nav­i­ga­tion through the in­ter­face is made pos­si­ble with an ar­ti­fi­cial “voice as­sis­tant” — in Rus­sian or English. “Luwrain of­fers peo­ple with vis­ual im­pair­ments the op­por­tu­nity to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and func­tions quickly and easily, re­gard­less of their com­puter skills level. The au­dio pre­sen­ta­tion quickly, in a mat­ter of min­utes, ex­plains how the sys­tem works, which is not the case for other in­ter­faces that may seem to­tally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to peo­ple born blind and hav­ing never seen, for ex­am­ple, a win­dow in their lives,” says the com­puter sci­en­tist.

A com­pletely free sys­tem — the Luwrain is freely avail­able on the In­ter­net and can be in­stalled ei­ther as a pri­mary OS or as an ap­pli­ca­tion on Win­dows, MacOS, or GNU/ Linux op­er­at­ing sys­tems. “The goal is that Luwrain re­mains ac­ces­si­ble to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, re­gard­less of their fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion,” in­sists the young man, who, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­poses in­stalling his sys­tem on the Rasp­berry mini­com­puter, which sells for around 30 eu­ros (US$33.93).

How­ever, Mikhail does not hide the fact that this pro­ject may have a com­mer­cial as­pect as well, if pri­vate com­pa­nies un­der­take to cre­ate com­pat­i­ble soft­ware. The Linux li­cense does not al­low Luwrain to be sold. On the other hand, we could open an online store that would of­fer down­load­able ap­pli­ca­tions for the blind — a to­tally vir­gin mar­ket for now,” he ad­mits.

If Mikhail al­lows him­self to say “we,” it is be­cause he was hired in Fe­bru­ary 2015 to work as an IT ar­chi­tect by the Moscow-based Elek­tron­naya Moskva Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Cen­tre to de­velop his pro­ject. “We plan to re­lease the fi­nal ver­sion by the end of this year, but be­fore that can hap­pen, there is still a lot of work to be done,” he says. Be­fore find­ing this job, the young man had spent three years con­tact­ing var­i­ous Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions, as well as for­eign ones, re­ceiv­ing re­fusal af­ter re­fusal. “No­body wanted to be­lieve I was just try­ing to do some­thing good for peo­ple. We hear all the time about in­no­va­tions, but when some­one re­ally has an in­no­va­tive so­cial pro­ject, peo­ple treat him like a fool!” he con­cludes.

Nonethe­less, the de­mand is real. World­wide, some 285 mil­lion peo­ple are vis­ually im­paired — 39 mil­lion be­ing fully blind, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO). Nearly 90 per­cent of these peo­ple live in low-in­come coun­tries. Rus­sia has ap­prox­i­mately 103,000 blind peo­ple.

Cour­rier de Russie

Mikhail Pozhi­daev, 32, on the ter­ri­tory of Tomsk spe­cial eco­nomic zone.

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