University of Maryland


AOL Incorporates Real-Time Text in New Release of Instant Messaging

June 20th, 2008

Real-time text capability has been added to the latest release of the popular AOL Instant Messaging, allowing users to see each other’s text live as it is typed. This option, included in AIM 6.8, resulted from collaboration between AOL and the RERC on Telecommunications Access – a partnership of the Trace Center and Gallaudet University’s Technology Access Program.

The real-time text option will be particularly useful for people who rely on text messaging as a primary means of communication, especially those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The receiver will be able to see each letter that the sender types, in real time, rather than waiting to view the entire message until after the “send” button is pressed. Users can respond and react to words as they are typed, giving a closer approximation to spoken conversation.

This can be particularly important in emergency situations, when the information needs to get across quickly or the message may be cut off before the user hits the “send” key (so nothing gets sent). With the new real-time option, messages like “I am having a heart at….” or “Someone is breaking into my h…” will get through.

“AIM enjoys a loyal following among consumers who are deaf and hard of hearing, so we were pleased that Gallaudet and the Trace Center chose to work with us to leverage its popularity and explore integration of real-time text functionality,” said Tom Wlodowski, Director of Accessibility at AOL. “This is a big win for AOL and the deaf community since the use of real-time text is receiving increased attention as a necessary equivalent to voice communication for consumers with disabilities.”

This commercial release by AOL is an important outcome of the ongoing research and development being conducted by the Trace Center and Gallaudet. Trace Center Director Gregg Vanderheiden had been working with Wlodkowski on getting real-time-text into AOL’s instant messaging product. When Gallaudet research engineer Norman Williams devised a prototype that combined real-time text communication with traditional instant messaging, Vanderheiden recognized it as a breakthrough. It became the basis for the option now incorporated in AIM 6.8.

“As a member of the deaf community and an active user of instant messaging, I knew there had to be a way for people like me to combine the familiarity of messaging on a TTY with a quick and popular online IM service such as AIM,” said Williams.

Real-time text is optional. To access the new feature, users simply click on “Actions” and then “Real-Time IM” from within an instant message window. A user may also highlight a buddy on his or her Buddy List and press Ctrl+R on the keyboard to initiate real-time IM. Both the IM sender and receiver must have AIM 6.8 to use the feature.

“This new version of AIM brings together IM and real-time text in a way that builds on the advantages of both to create a whole new texting experience. It is quicker and more personal – yet with all the advantages and familiarity of IM,” said Trace Center Director Gregg Vanderheiden. “AOL’s leadership in both IM and disability access made them a natural to pilot this new technology. Their response and enthusiasm has been remarkable from Day One.”

Funding for the RERC’s work on real-time text has been provided by the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), under grant H133E040013.

(Updated from original posting on 1/16/08.)