JHU Student's Software Helps Visually Impaired Computer Users
From an on-line library, however, Karshmer downloaded free software that magnified the images on his screen and allowed him to continue his work.
Zoom Lens, the program that came to Karshmer's rescue, was invented by a Johns Hopkins University student, Steve Crutchfield, during a holiday break in his sophomore year. Recently, the university installed Zoom Lens on all Macintosh units in its Krieger Hall Computer Lab to make it easier for visually impaired students to use the machines. It was the first time Hopkins has installed a student-developed program on computers in this lab.
Karshmer says Zoom Lens is superior to the magnification program that came with his Macintosh. Instead of replacing the entire screen with an enlarged segment, Zoom Lens opens an adjustable window that magnifies only the area where the cursor is located. The full image remains in the background for reference.
"Zoom Lens allows me to have a magnified window of any size on my Mac that shows a portion of my screen enlarged to almost any magnification level I might like," Karshmer wrote in a thank-you note to Crutchfield. "Whatever is under the cursor is in the middle of the Zoom Lens window. I have found this tool to be very helpful."
Ironically, Crutchfield, now finishing his third year at Hopkins, did not create Zoom Lens to help people with limited vision. It was a tool to hone his software development skills. "It's often useful as a developer to look closely at something on the screen," explains Crutchfield, 19, of Chicago. "There's a feature where at the top of the magnification, it gives you the coordinates and what color pixel is under the mouse pointer. That was useful for me."
But after he made Zoom Lens available free through on-line software libraries, "I got some feedback from people on the Internet, saying this is a good program for people who are visually impaired," he recalls. "To be honest, I had never thought of that. I went back and modified the program to be more appropriate for that sort of use."
Since then, he's received fan mail from as far away as Japan and the Netherlands. Closer to home, the Kansas-based Virtual Assistive Technology Center's World Wide Web site promotes Zoom Lens as a free program for people with visual disabilities. Although he has copyrighted the software, "I have never tried to sell Zoom Lens commercially," Crutchfield says. "I like to think of the program as a 'gift' to the Mac community, and I enjoy receiving e-mail from people who've used it, liked it and distributed it further."
Crutchfield has been creating computer programs for a decade. His parents bought him his first Macintosh at age 8. A year later, he devised a secret-number guessing game that he could play on his computer.
While attending high school at Illinois Math and Science Academy near Chicago, he invented Beam Wars, an arcade-type shareware game. He says about 300 people have purchased it for $15. Many others, who have not paid the registration fee, have nonetheless sent him complimentary e-mail.
Crutchfield graduated at 16 and enrolled at Hopkins, where he majors in electrical and computer engineering and in computer science. In 1994, he wrote a program that allows Hopkins' Student Council elections to be conducted electronically. He also developed Firepower, a free screen-saver that has been installed on all Macintoshes in the Krieger Computer Lab. Last summer, he completed an internship at Apple Computer Inc. in Cupertino, Calif.; he will soon return to Apple for a second summer internship.
This spring, Crutchfield served as a teaching assistant in two Hopkins computer courses. One was the demanding Operating Systems class, in which he helped older graduate students with programming problems. After picking up his diploma next year, Crutchfield plans to go to graduate school, where he will continue to study software development and take business courses.
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