Outreach: The Key to Communication

On Friday and in some previous posts, I have taken a fairly critical view of the AT industry and the lack of innovation demonstrated there in recent history. While ATIA 2006 disappointed me as I don’t find a pile of new CCTV devices too interesting, people who like such things probably felt overjoyed at the number of new entries into a niche that seemed to have stagnated for a while. Also, this ATIA brought us Code Factory’s Mobile Speak Pocket, with the first ever true touch screen interface design for people with severe and total vision impairments. So, the AT industry shows progress, it just seems slow and driven more by new players than the well healed establishment corporations.

I want, however, to remind Blind Confidential readers that my piece on Friday mentioned a number of different groups who should start sharing ideas to help accelerate innovation but I singled out the AT industry more so than the others. I sincerely believe that the AT companies, who ultimately live and die by the success of products they sell to we blinks should take the leadership position in bringing innovations from the research to the product phase. As I also mentioned on Friday, these companies do not have the same level of resources available to other organizations so, for them to succeed, communication from the research community is essential.

Thus, I start the week contemplating communication and its importance to innovation. All research facilities, corporate, academic or otherwise staff themselves with great minds with big egos who love to publish their findings. The old expression about academia, “publish or perish” remains as true today as ever. Researchers who never announce their results fall into obscurity even within the research community and will often find themselves seeking employment outside of their field. The research community, however, publishes its results in journals and periodicals that AT people don’t read. They also make their presentations at conferences which few AT people attend.

Meanwhile, the AT community meets at its conferences which the scholars rarely attend. One will always find a few professors and graduate students at ATIA, CSUN and the European shows but they can rarely be found in the audience at a demo by Eric Damery or Ben Weiss. Innovations made in the AT industry often get missed by the research community which frequently results in superfluous reinvention.

On numerous occasions, I have discussed a “new” idea with a researcher and found myself saying, “JAWS or ZoomText or Window-Eyes or PAC Mate already can do that.” Astonished, the graduate student starts talking about his innovation and, to stop this senseless waste of our time, I can often open my shoulder bag, pull out a device and demonstrate their concept in action.

Where does the fault for the communication gap fall?

On one hand we have an AT industry that looks inward far more often than to the rest of the world for inspiration. I’ll hear some AT product managers say, “Well no one has done it that way before.” As an explanation for why they do not explore new techniques. At the same time, I hear researchers say, “Well no one showed me the latest version of JAWS so I didn’t know this had already shown up in the market.”

Finally, the users themselves share some of the blame. Many years ago, one of the AT companies hired a fancy market research firm to survey users, trainers and decision makers in the blindness field. This research cost a lot of money and included a large distribution of so called experts in the field. The results seemed bizarre when read by the company who commissioned the study. The results told us that fewer than 2% of all blind people cared about using spreadsheets, presentation tools like PowerPoint, professional database tools like Access and that far less than 1% cared about Macintosh or GNU/Linux boxes. Reading these results both blinks and sighties alike felt perplexed but, after some contemplation, we inferred that if a user’s favorite screen reader, whether JAWS, Window-Eyes or OutSpoken didn’t do a good job in a particular class of applications that the users didn’t feel they needed those programs. It was the classic “chicken and egg” problem – if JAWS didn’t support something, the users didn’t know they wanted it.

How then could an AT company do market research? If the users stated they didn’t want what they already had, what would inspire innovation? How would the users even know if they cared about a new feature if they hadn’t already started using it?

The answer came when some AT companies chose to become a vanguard for innovation and access to an increasingly large number of types of applications. I think Eric Damery deserves much of the credit for this movement as, in his role as JAWS product manager, he brought many of the ideas that the blind FS engineers thought up to the market. Eric’s sense of what will and what will not be useful to a large population of users is uncanny and, unlike the engineers who would make every programming, debugging or hacking tool as cool as possible, brings a sense of what users in workplaces, universities and in recreational settings will actually enjoy. As Eric included support for an increasingly variety of programs, users started trying them out and then started demanding that this support constantly improve. Ben Weiss and the guys at AI^2 did the same for the low vision business and drove magnifiers ever forward.

Competition, of the real sort as opposed to the failure I described in an earlier post, drove the rest of the screen readers and magnifiers to catch up. Window-Eyes always tried to reach parity with JAWS while MAGic forever tried to catch ZoomText. In this way, competition was both fierce and healthy.

Now, however, we find ourselves in a stagnant stage for innovation. JAWS and Window-Eyes add a few new features with each release but none are as dramatic as the virtual buffer introduced in JAWS in 1999 or the first Terminal Services/Citrix Server solution that Window-Eyes brought out a few years back.

Why has innovation slowed?

The AT companies have reached a point where adding support for a particular application offers access to a very small percentage of their user base. It’s hard to find more things to support that the majority of users will find useful and the economics prohibit them from working too hard on obscure products.

What other innovation is necessary?

Screen readers, since the advent of Windows have delivered information through what I will call a second generation or G2 interface (G1 being the text based DOS and GNU/Linux systems). They took information from the screen or from an API and in a serial manner, one syllable or pause at a time, pushed the text out through the speakers. For many years, this interface represented the best one could expect. It is now, however, time for the birth of G3, the third generation of screen reader interfaces.

Ideas for a G3 paradigm resound through the research world. One only needs to take a look at some of the work in audio transformations going on at U. Toronto or McGill up in Canada, Brewster’s work from the UK and a number of other publications from sources as varied as NASA and robotics labs in corporations and universities. We can also play one of the advanced audio games like Shades of Doom and find a three dimensional interface metaphor as rich as any I’ve seen deployed to date.

So, we return to the questions above. What can we do to get the researchers to talk to the gamers to talk to the AT people who can deliver it all to the users?

I suppose I can rant and rave and the few people who read this blog, read my articles published elsewhere or come to hear me do a presentation will hear my position. I can suggest that the AT companies start having their product managers read the scholarly journals and that academics start spending more time at trade shows but I doubt they will listen to me.

Someone, some company, some university or some group needs to start an outreach program. Perhaps SIG Access at the ACM or something at IEEE. Maybe ATIA can start a new ideas SIG. Maybe AFB can start a meeting of the minds resource that the stakeholders can access easily. Maybe we need a university to draw a line in the sand and start collecting all of the stuff that exists into a comprehensive research library.

I’d like to hear what the readers think.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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