A new project could help give Internet access to the 16 million Americans who are disabled, illiterate or simply find technology too difficult to use.
The new "computer ecosystem" would assist people with varying abilities to use digital devices in an increasingly digital world, something the young and able-bodied may take for granted. However, for people with impaired vision, literacy issues, learning disabilities or physical impediments, using digital devices, from computers to cell phones and kiosks, can be a huge hassle, if they are able to use them at all. Not to mention older generations who are not used to newer technologies.
The new system, being developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is called the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII). Its website makes big promises:
"Imagine if you could pick up any device, anywhere, and it would automatically adapt to you," says the narrator of its concept video.
We see a visually impaired person's screen change from blurry, small text, to high-contrast, large text as she sits down to it. Then, we watch an older woman (the narrator tells us she is "usually confused by technology") sit down at her own desk, and the screen reorganizes itself from a bunch of widgets and images to three simple options: "Email 1, Email 2, Email 3."
"This project will move research to reality," says Gregg Vanderheiden, an engineering professor and director of UW-Madison's Trace Center. "The project will help make it so that whenever a person encounters something with a digital interface — a computer, Web page, TV, thermostat — the interface on the device or Web page instantly and automatically changes into a form that the person can understand and use."
That would benefit everyone, including those who are currently comfortable with technology as it is. If the system knows everyone's preferences, it can organize everything on the screen into a schematic that the user intuitively understands. No more lists when you prefer icons, and so on.
"If you're a teenager with a learning disability, the last thing you want is something that highlights that you have a learning disability," says Vanderheiden. "But if everyone around them is using it as well, then they are just another user with different preferences."
In order for the system to work, users would carry a card, ring or USB drive with a special key on it. When the user inserts their key into the system, it would automatically access the user's needs and preferences. The creators are already working on features like simplified interfaces, large type, audio aids, captions and high-contrast screens.
The project will take about five years to complete and will be funded primarily through a $20 million federal grant. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised the program, which he says finally "allows everyone to participate" in education, inside the classroom and out.
According to the Pew Research Group, almost one in 20 Americans doesn't use the Internet because it is "too difficult to use." That's about 16 million people.