Symbolic browsing

27th May 2005 at 01:00
COMMUNICATE: WEBWIDE. Internet browser. Widgit. Price from pound;69 for the first year's subscription, then pound;60

John Galloway looks at an innovative way of viewing web pages which uses symbols to support text

Communicate: Webwide is an ingenious internet browser from Widgit, the firm that produces Writing with Symbols. It allows users to view web pages in one of three ways: as a standard view; as text only; or as text with symbol support.

It is this last mode that is so innovative. Building on the work begun with its better known predecessor, any text is made legible to people with literacy difficulties by providing a graphical representation for most of the words. This is easy enough for nouns and verbs, but even abstract words such as "before", "yesterday" and "practical" are given a clean line-drawn interpretation. When browsing pages, it is easy enough to switch between the different modes, and often desirable.

The internet is a visually rich medium so we get our understanding of the content of a page from its layout and graphics as well as the text. Showing the different modes is simply a matter of clicking on a button on the toolbar. You may want normal mode to check it's the right page, then text-only to focus on particular content, then with symbols to decode it. A short piece of text on one screen can become a lot to scroll through when symbolised. When browsing in symbols mode, key graphics such as logos remain.

The system was developed with support from the BBC, so their pages work well. But it can't handle Flash, so I wasn't able to get the lyrics for "I Should Be So Lucky" from the Kylie-oke section of Other sites - which are "flash" in a different sense - such as, need to be loaded in the usual way before the symbols can be effective.

After that, the only issue might be with content. Some words, inevitably, are not symbolised. "Important" is, but not "unimportant".

Widgit will monitor the site to find commonly occurring words that need adding to the lexicon. You can also email suggestions. When reading my horoscope, "sexy" and "passionate" seemed to be missing, although some would describe that an accurate reflection on reality.

Even dense texts benefited from this tool. The text of Chancellor Gordon Brown's green economics gained another layer of meaning with the addition of symbols, but no amount of support could make EU documents penetrable.

Overall, this is impressive stuff, even if you have to work hard with the scroll bar to see everything as pages are reformatted to create lists at the side of the screen. I have no idea how this software works. To me it is a mystery, just as the words can be for people who are struggling with literacy.

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