CHI 2013: Technology for Life

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This is one of those conference topics that you walk into by name alone and then suddenly realise you don’t want to go home that evening because it's so damn good. Technology for Life touched on my genuine passion for accessibility.

A couple of great talks with ambitious objectives made this a real highlight of the day.

Access Lens

Access Lens: A Gesture-Based Screen Reader for Real-World Documents

Shaun Kane had me doing cartwheels with this outstanding concept of blind users using gestures to manipulate and understand physical objects.

In this study, the team created a prototype that uses OCR and a camera to interpret objects and create ‘hot areas’ that the person can hold their hand over to highlight and get audible feedback on. The example of a map was perfect and solved a problem that’s not getting fixed anytime soon, despite the prevalence of electronic devices.

The technology is neat, and the idea is fantastic, but above all, what stood out most was Shaun’s resolve and understanding of the real problem. He was keen to highlight that this technology can be used for touchscreens as much as scraps of paper.

In what could be described as ‘real’ future proofing, Shaun waxed lyrical about his belief that even technology will remain ‘hostile’ in the future. Rather than an idealistic Bluetooth accessibility device for day-to-day touch devices, Shaun suggests a technique that can circumvent the futility in public design and deal with the problem straight on.

Age-Related Differences in Performance with Touchscreens Compared to Traditional Mouse Input

Accessibility of touch devices seems to be a popular topic as well as a number of urban myths sparked from nowhere. Out to try and put some numbers and citations which may work for/against these myths, this paper presented by Leah Findlater felt comprehensive yet focused.

The results were fascinating in their nuances. Firstly, touch devices really are easier to use by older adults. In fact, the difference in performance between desktop and touch for older adults came in at 35%, compared to 16% for younger adults. A remarkable difference.

Secondly, there were differences in performance of individual tasks, with dragging and precision understandably being more difficult for older adults. This puts debate to the current trend in gestures, and the need to balance user ability with the increasing desire (and some argue need) to make touch devices more gestural.

This reminds me of a similar debate in videogames - is it fair to challenge someone based on their reaction times, and if you are, are you creating a user interface or a discrimination machine?!

I would even speculate that this upwards curve of ease of use compared to desktop could play a significant role in the adoption of tablets over the next few years. If there is such a significant cognitive advantage to using a tablet, it’s not hard to see where computer salesmen (or, Amazon banners these days) will be pointing their shiny suit lens flares over the next few years.

An unconnected but related footnote to this topic is the recent fantastic article by Marco Zehe on the realities of accessibility on modern touchscreen phones.

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