Access tech helps all

New technology designed to make computers accessible to people with disabilities may have benefits for everyone trying to keep up with the rapidly changing IT environment, a Stanford University researcher says.

A project called Archimedes was intended to design tools that will make any computer platform accessible to users with speech, hearing, physical or other limitations.

However, it may also help reduce a "huge amount of stress for all of us" because the graphical user interface of computers is supposed to be intuitive, "but it's a lie," said Neil Scott, senior research leader and Archimedes project engineer at Stanford. Scott discussed the research, sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation, during the dg.o (DigitalGovernment.Org) 2000 workshop May 16 in Los Angeles.

Archimedes has focused on creating a total access system external to the computing platform that would meet requirements such as those in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that call for agencies to modify IT platforms to make them accessible to people with different abilities and requirements.

The five-year project places a high priority on introducing intelligent agents and natural language software at the user interface to simplify commands in a way that makes sense to the user. All the tools developed by Archimedes can help the user access a computer without modifying it, Scott said.

For blind people, Archimedes has developed a device that lets users "feel" their way around a computer screen. The device works like a mouse, but it has motors that engage when the user passes the cursor over an element on the computer screen. Each screen element — such as a window, an icon or a word — feels different.

For deaf people, the Stanford team is working on a solution that combines sign language with cartoon images that convey an idea through pictures. Researchers also are designing keyboards that allow a user to type by applying pressure with their fingers on specific points on a round, mouse-like object.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which has been working with the Archimedes project, is interested in using the motorized mouse and other tools to allow imagery analysts to work more quickly, Scott said. NIMA could use speech and eye tracking to annotate images and use handheld devices to zoom into portions of images.

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