A blog about universal and accessible design

Monday, July 6, 2009

thoughts on the Kindle and computers

As the Chronicle of Higher Ed and others report, the National Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind are suing Arizona State University over its new policy to provide textbooks to students via the Amazon Kindle, a device (as Blind advocates have noted for some time) that has the capacity to read books aloud but does not provide any non-visual prompts (i.e. you cannot get to the audio features if you are visually impaired). It seems that ASU is providing a way for some students to receive their course material electronically, but in a format that others cannot access; this is the definition of unequal access and does seem to this total ADA layperson to be questionable.

These kinds of debates will intensify as more and more electronics come out that use alternative interfaces. Fast Company recently asked top designers, "What Will Cell Phones Look Like 10 Years From Now?" and their responses showed this interest in multi-sensory, flexible computer interactions: phones of the future, they said, will fit on fingertips -- or even IN fingertips -- or will be gone entirely, as we will mine data from "account based networks" that one designer calls "the cloud" (though he is not specific about what kind of device would be used). Touch screen elements are still a curiosity in full-sized computers (2 M out of 300 M PCs sold have them, according to the NY Times, but more are on their way) .

Touch-screens, speaking computers, and interactive devices that are freed from the standard screen/keypad type of interface (like the Wii) have tremendous potential for disabled users. Still, as Jim Tobias of Access on Main Street comments, "we’re just doing target practice here until real stuff shows up" -- that is, a lot of these new devices point in the direction of greater accessibility, but are not there yet. One of the problems is that the makers of products like the Kindle do not integrate awareness of disability into their products from the get-go-- and for those who imagine improvement is inevitable, let's keep in mind that Kindle is already on version 2 without fixing this problem-- in fact the problem is worse now that publishers have some say in whether books can be read aloud. Here are some products that do address a fuller group of users from the start:

- I noted in an earlier post that Google has worked to make touch screens easier to use for visually impaired users. The design team (which includes engineer TV Raman, who is blind) came up with a "relative" touch application for Google's mobile Android operating system. The cleverly named "Eyes-free" shell makes any place the user hits become the center of the screen (for dialing, the first touch locates the 5). Eyes-free has a YouTube channel with videos about the program.

- Australian designer Rhys Cooper recently won a MEX Mobile User Experience award for his Doo Phone, a cell phone interface designed for people with intellectual disabilities. Its simplified menus and large images representing most frequently-called numbers help keep users from getting "lost" in their mobile phone menus. The Doo Phone certainly has promise for a broader population as phones become more and more complex-- and it helps that Cooper designed it for existing mobile platforms.

As for the Kindle in university education, it seems faulty to invest a lot of institutional energy and money in a device that still has a lot of problems from an intellectual property standpoint. Because of its strong Digital Rights Management aspects (i.e. you cannot read a Kindle file on another device), it limits the user to just one interface. Recently Core77 reported on some ID students' designs for smartbooks for Freescale-- they included touch screens, collapsible keyboards, and thin, mobile elements that could be arranged in a variety of ways. As the students brainstormed the design project, they drew inspiration from both mobile phones and video games-- drawing on their own knowledge of the potential for highly flexible and mobile devices. Variety and tactility will be key in this market-- something the Kindle seems still to be working out.

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