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Interlude: New opportunities for user interfaces

In my previous entry, I promised some thoughts on presentations at OGF20. Since then you will have seen nothing from me. This is not because I lost interest; unfortunately I've been in hospital and then recuperating. Now I'm well again, back to work and the proud owner of a heart pacemaker. I still plan to blog some thoughts arising from OGF20, but for this entry I will deal with a different topic.

I've just read and been inspired by Chris Mairs' 2006 Turing Lecture on Inclusion and Exclusion in the Digital World. Chris takes what could be a dull (albeit important) topic and makes it very interesting by showing the big picture. He's talking about accessbility, which previously I tended to associate with detailed guidelines about which colours to use on web pages and how to tag HTML images with meaningful "Alt" tags. I did consider it important - I'm now old enough to hate small fonts - but I didn't find it inspiring.

Chris's lecture looks both at technologies that help to overcome disabilities (including pacemakers!) and at technologies that are hard to use for disabled people. He gives mobile phones as an example of the latter, as their use of soft keys means that they were practically unusable by blind people - of which Chris is one. He notes that this is not just a matter of a particular technology but has major social implications, as people now tend to use mobiles to navigate their social lives. Similar concerns apply to the World Wide Web.

Now, however, Chris sees many opportunities for improved interfaces - to benefit all sorts of users, disabled people included. To continue with the example of mobile phones, these are now powerful computers with many input and output devices (including microphones, speakers, displays, cameras, GPS, ...). Just as important as the hardware is the software environment: most phones are now extensible platforms with development kits available. This allows third parties to develop specialist interfaces. The next step is to send the data in multiple forms, so that different interfaces can process it differently. For example, a phone choice menu might be sent both in sound ("Press 1 for new sales, press 2 for...") and in XML (" 1: New sales ... ").

What I found inspiring was Chris's optimism and sense of opportunities. The use of open platforms and cool technology could benefit lots of us in many different ways. I recommend the article. Unfortunately you may have to pay to read it - it's online at http://comjnl.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/50/3/274.

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