IBM is working on one that will help the elderly and the illiterate

The development of an interface platform for mobile phones capable of helping users overcome old-age and illiteracy-related barriers is crucial for enabling a wider segment of the population gain access to a fast-growing range of mobile services, researchers at the IBM say.

The new platform that the IBM is working on can be used to build mobile applications that richly support multiple modes of user interaction — based on voice, images, icons, and text. It will be “common across different applications” and not be an operating system itself. And it is to spearhead the development of such a platform that the IBM recently announced a research project, with the National Institute of Design (NID) being one of the collaborating institutions.

Helping the illiterate

Experts have said for long that ‘multimodal' interfaces can help overcome barriers such as illiteracy. For instance, if a mobile application is capable of handling speech input and output along with text, a less literate user might find a task like filling up an online form easier using voice.

“Currently, we are trying to identify which modalities will make interoperability easy. The focus of this platform is on the modality such as voice, images, icons and text,” Manish Gupta, Director, IBM Research — India, and Chief Technologist, IBM India/South Asia, told The Hindu.

He explained that this platform should be able to facilitate an interface based on the modalities that a mobile phone supports, in a way that is “convenient to the aged and less-literate users.”

“The idea of the platform is to ensure that it can work with a phone that is as basic as a landline and can also use features of high end smart phones. The platform should ideally be able to adapt to the client device and suggest an interface on different modalities, depending on the modalities that are supported by the client device,” he said. It was too early to say which operating system it would run on.

First step

The study that is to be carried out by the NID will be the first step in deciding the contours of the platform. “The ethnographic research we are conducting will give us a clearer view to the requirements of the target audiences,” says Jignesh Khakhar of the NID. It was likely to support the design and development of interfaces that could, for example, support touch, voice or gaze inputs, “as well as text and/or image inputs.”

Not much progress had been made in India in the design of interfaces for specific communities addressing a specific context, or specific needs. “This is a difficult task, as it requires a deep understanding of context as well as of behaviour. Interfaces in regional languages have also not seen widespread adoption,” he said.

Japan chosen

Japan, whose population has a large proportion of aged people, has been chosen by the IBM for research related to the needs of elderly mobile phone users. Here, the IBM is collaborating with the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo.

The IBM has stated that the software developed will be made available as open source and ‘other materials developed will be made publicly available' to governments and businesses.

Keywords: IBMmobile phones

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