Monday, April 02, 2007

New bar codes could offer assistive technology promise

An interesting advent in cell phone technology looms promisingly on the horizon for people with disabilities.

In this New York Times news article , read how
New bar codes can talk with your cell phone.
(The article includes a link for watching a demonstration of this software.)

According to the Times article:
“It sounds like something straight out of a futuristic film: House hunters, driving past a for-sale sign, stop and point their cellphone at the sign. With a click, their cellphone screen displays the asking price, the number of bedrooms and baths and lots of other details about the house. “

“Media experts say that cellphones, the Swiss Army knives of technology, are quickly heading in this direction. New technology, already in use in parts of Asia but still in development in the United States, allows the phones to connect everyday objects with the Internet.”

“In their new incarnation, cellphones become a sort of digital remote control, as one CBS executive put it. With a wave, the phone can read encoded information on everyday objects and translate that into videos, pictures or text files on its screen.”

So you wonder what this has to do with Access Ability and providing disability support services. Read on and allow me to explain.

The trick for making this venture work on a broad scope, of course, will be companies seeing value in incorporating this technology into their products. If enough companies do this, then the use of these new bar codes will spread. I’m predicting that this is a foregone conclusion and we will soon be seeing more and more of these bar codes. Remember, you read that here first!

That same thought about manufacturers finding value to make it worth their while goes for incorporating this feature into the field of assistive technology. They have to see the practical value in it.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of one aspect where a student buys the hard copy of a text book, uses her cell phone to gather the new bar code, and is instantly given the authorization for downloading the electronic version of the text. The accessible version can then be downloaded onto the phone and, with further innovation in cell phone technology, the book might also be read right there on the phone.

To ensure that it is actually a student with a disability who is accessing this material, this might be incorporated into a two-step process where, after entering the bar code from the book, the user is required to do the same with a publisher-issued identification card given to users of their accessible material.

This entire process can save much time for the publishers and, as time is money, the company can see profit by expediting the whole process of obtaining accessible material from a publisher. The student can also save time and have instant access to the material, an almost incomprehensible thought in many previous situations. Granted, it is a little pipe dreamy as we all know how tight the publishers hang onto their copyrighted material.

However, that proposed scenario is not too far off from being able to be realized today. There are a growing number of software applications that will run on cell phones, which already allow users to play audio files. The audio version of text material is great for some students with learning disabilities and the phone makes an ideal utilitarian tool. Additionally, two software models of screen readers already exist that allow blind people to access many features that appear on the visual display of many phones.

What is to prevent the actualization of making the cell phone progress even further, grabbing the informational leaps enabled by the new bar codes, complementing them with additional features that the assistive technology can make accessible to students with disabilities, and allowing a never before seen level of usability of information on a cell phone?

The only answer to that question may be limited thinking on behalf of the companies that have the technology and materials. If they do not think of the innovations like the one I proposed with the e-text authorization, then it is up to DSS professionals to share these ideas. If the tech companies won’t think outside of the mainstream box, we may have to pull them out.

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