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Trace Director Focuses on Accessible Consumer Products in CHI Plenary

Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center, gave closing plenary remarks at the 2001 Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference that focused on the benefits of designing accessible mass-market products. The conference was held in Seattle, WA., March 2001. Photo of Gregg Vanderheiden

"Designing standard products benefit all users and can be profitable as well as practical," said Vanderheiden.

He pointed out that U.S. Census figures show that as people age, they are likely to acquire a modest or even severe disability. That is why a key strategy for the future is for product designers to understand the functional limitations of people with different kinds of abilities and how they can or cannot access mass-market consumer products.

Vanderheiden invited the closing plenary audience to study and address cross-disability access issues when looking for the next big user-interface breakthrough, and he gave historical examples of many inventions that evolved from addressing the needs of people with disabilities. Among these inventions is the LP record and the Jacuzzi.

"With emerging technologies, it should be possible and practical to develop new products and services with an unprecedented level of accessibility and assistance for everyday situations," said Vanderheiden.

The CHI conference was held in Seattle, Wash. April 3-5, 2001 and was attended by more than 3,000 researchers and designers in the area of human-computer interaction.

In the spirit of the conference theme "Anytime - Anywhere" and product accessibility, Vanderheiden introduced the possibility of a future-forward looking device called "Window to the World." The concept of this foldable wallet-size computer device with a built-in camera and display is to offer people of different abilities the means to communicate with others and access remote services on demand. For example, when traveling outside one's native country, the "Window to the World" could be used to translate a restaurant menu. Or it could remind a forgetful person the name of an acquaintance through a small, inconspicuous earpiece. Or even allow a person who is deaf to communicate via sign language to a speaking person without a live interpreter.

"With the emergence of a wireless, pervasive Internet, we will have new input, output and sensing technologies that make it possible to use portable and personalized access devices," said Vanderheiden, "like a Braille notebook for people who are blind to access ATM machines, or use VCRs. This will allow us many opportunities to improve the lives of people with congenital and acquired functional limitations, and it will foster natural accessibility of products for people who do not have disabilities."

The Trace R&D Center works toward developing strategies and guidelines to make standard products accessible across disabilities. These efforts include "EZ Access", a set of design techniques for touch-screen based products; a reference design for accessible cell phones; and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium.

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