On 22 April 2013 I managed to find a bit of time to attend a seminar that touched upon some of the themes that I recently blogged about, namely, the way in which technology can be made available (and can be used to help) different groups of users.
During the day there were a total of five presentations, each of which touched upon many of the different themes that continue to be a strong interest: accessibility, usability, and the way in which technology can potentially help people. Like so many of these blogs, I'm going to do a bit of a write-up of each presentation, and then conclude with a set of thoughts and points which emerged from the closing discussion.
Older people and on-line social interactions
The first talk of the day was by Shailey Minocha who talked about a project called OCQL (project website) that has been exploring how technology may be able to be used to help and support older people. If you're interested, I've written a brief blog summary of an earlier workshop that Shailey and her colleagues ran.
Some of the issues that the project aims to explore are the different motivations for being on-line, understanding various advantages and disadvantages and corresponding potential risks and obstacles. Another aspect of the project was to explore whether we might be able to offer advice to designers to allow them to create more usable systems.
Shailey touched upon challenges and dilemmas that users may face. One challenge is how we might help to create formal and informal support networks to enable users to not only get online in the first place, but also help users to develop their technology skills. One comment that I noted was that 'buying a [internet] connected computer is easy, it's continuing to use it that is difficult'.
Shailey gave us a flavour of some preliminary findings. A simple motivation for getting connected is a desire to keep in touch with people, which is connected with the advantage that certain aspects of technology has a potential to reduce social isolation. Some of the obstacles included the need to gain technical support and the challenges that lie with understanding certain concepts and metaphors that are a necessary part of being on-line. The perceived risks include fears about a loss of privacy, concerns about knowing who or which organisations or products to trust. The perceived disadvantages include the fear that technology might take over the lives of the user and this might take the user away from other events and activities that were important.
I remember a really interesting anecdote of a user who started to use an iPad. The device was used so much (to keep in contact with distant friends and family), that this took away from time socialising with other people who lived nearby.
Shailey also left us some recommendations. Training, it was suggested, should be personalised to the needs of individuals. One-off training sessions are not sufficient. Instead, training should take place over a longer period of time.
For those who are interested, here are two links to some related resources. The first is a link to a paper entitled, Conducting empirical research with older people (ORO repository), to be presented at a human-computer interaction (HCI) conference. The second is a set of web resources (Delicious) that have been acquired during the project.
Towards the end of the presentation I noted two really interesting questions. The first was, 'to what extent is the familiarity of technology a temporary problem?', and the second question (which is related to the first) is: 'putting age as an issue to one side, how can we all prepare ourselves to become familiar with and work with the next big technological innovation that may be on the horizon?'
The haptic bracelets
Simon Holland, from the department of Computing and Communication introduced us to devices known as the Haptic Bracelet (Music Computer Laboratory). In essence, a haptic bracelet is a wearable device that you can put on your wrist or ankle. The word haptic, of course, relates to your sense of touch. The devices can be controlled so that they can vibrate at different frequencies or produce rhythms. They also contain accelerometers which can be used to detect movement and gestures.
My first question was, 'okay, so all this stuff is pretty cool but what on earth can it be used for?' Simon clearly had anticipated this thought and provided some very compelling answers. Fundamentally, it can be used with the teaching of music, specifically with the teaching of rhythm, or drumming. Drum kits have pedals; drummers use both their hands and their feet. Simon told us that he imagined a device that was akin to an iPod: a form of music player that could help musicians to more directly (and immediately) learn and feel rhythms. When I started to think about this, I really wanted one - I could imagine that a haptic iPod could add a whole new dimension to the music which I listen to as a travel across London on the tube.
Its one thing listening to a piece of music through headphones, it's something totally different if you're feeling beats and vibrations through the same limbs that could be creating exactly the same rhythm if you were sitting at a drum kit. I've noted the following quote that pretty much sums it up: 'at best, it goes through your two ears... [but] how do you know what limb is doing what?!' All this can be linked to a music education approach called Dalcroze Eurhythmics (wikipedia), which was something totally new to me. Something else that I hadn't heard of before is sensorimotor contingency theory (which I don't know anything about, but whatever it is, it sounds very cool!)
Early on in his talk, Simon suggested that these devices have the potential to be an assistive technology. One area in which these devices might be useful is with gait rehabilitation, i.e. by providing additional feedback to people who are trying to re-learn how to walk following a brain injury or stroke. Apparently a metronome is used to help people to move in time with a rhythm, which is a useful technique to regain (and guide) rhythmic motor control. One of the advantages of using haptic bracelets is that the responses or feedback they could provide could be more dynamic. Plus, due to the presence of an accelerometer, different feedback might be presented in real-time - but this is mostly conjecture on my part; this is something that is a part of on-going research.
During the final part of Simon's slot, we were given an opportunity to play with some of the bracelets. Pairs were configured in such a way that we were able to 'send' real-time rhythms wirelessly to another user. When we 'tapped' on a table, the same 'tap' was picked up by someone else who was wearing another bracelet.
We were introduced to other (potential) uses. These included sport, gaming, and helping with group synchronisation (or learning) in dance. Fascinating stuff!
Digital inclusion in the era of the smartphone
Becky Faith is a doctoral student at the Open University who spoke about some of her research interests, and it was all pretty interesting stuff. One of her areas of interest is how technology (particularly the smartphone) can be used as a means of support for vulnerable people (and how it might be used to gain support from others).
During Becky's talk I was introduced to a range of new terms, phrases and frameworks that I hadn't heard of before, such as capability theory (which might relate to what rights people may have but are not aware of) and technofeminist theory. I also noted questions that related to the roles of the private sector versus the state in facilitating access to technology. This reminded me of one of the drivers for good interaction design and usability: that it can lead to higher levels of productivity, more effective sales and lower costs. Since goods and services are now on-line, facilitating digital inclusion also, fundamentally, means good business sense.
Becky's session was also very interactive. We were given a challenge: we had to find out a very specific piece of information using our smartphone (if we had one). This was to find the name of our MEP. We were also asked how we might feel if this was our only device. I, for one, wouldn't be very happy. I (personally) feel more comfortable with a keyboard that moves than one that is only visible on a screen.
The activity gave way to a debate. Some users will be faced with fundamental access challenges. These could be thought of in in terms of the availability of devices or availability of signal coverage. Ultimately, there is the necessity of understanding the needs of the users, their situations and the kinds of devices and equipment they may have access to. A thought provoking session.
Andrew Stuart from Careware (company website) started his presentation by describing a question that he had asked himself, or he had been asked by someone else (I didn't note down the exact wording!). The question was, 'why can't I find my dog using my iPhone?'. Dogs go missing all the time. The company that Andrew established created a GPS dog collar, which allowed dogs to be found using iPhones. A great idea!
Andrew's company later expanded to create devices, such as a tracking belt, which could be used with vulnerable people. Tracking dogs is one thing, but tracking people is a whole other issue. The idea of people wearing tracking devices obviously raises serious ethical issues, but the necessity for privacy needs to be balanced against the desire to ensure that vulnerable people (who are sometimes family members) are cared for and looked after. It is argued that personal tracking devices can help some people to maintain their independence whilst allowing family members not only peace of mind but also open up new ways to offer personal support. Users of a personal tracker can, for instance, press a button to alert other people of difficulties or problems. A GPS belt (instead of a collar) is a device that is very different from a mobile phone (which, arguably, with its in built GPS facilities, can almost do a very similar task).
Andrew's presentation touched on a number of different issues, i.e. centralised telemedicine through call centres versus the use of individual devices for families, and the roles that local authorities may be able to play. There were also hints of future developments, such as the use of accelerometers to potentially detect falls.
Open University modules such as Fundamentals of Interaction Design touch upon subjects such as wearable computing or wearable interfaces. It was interesting to see that two presentations demonstrated two very different types of wearable devices - and both presentations were about how they can be used to help people, but in very different ways.
Exploring new technologies through playful peer-to-peer engagement in informal learning
The final presentation of the day was by Josie Tetley, from the Health and Social Care faculty. Josie spoke of an EU funded project called Opt-In which 'aims to explore if and how new technologies can improve the quality of life of older people' and investigates 'whether existing pedagogic approaches are the best way of enabling older people to learn new technologies'.
Getting people to play with technology was one of the topics that were mentioned, both in a research lab, but also as a part of informal social settings. Josie also spoke about the different research methods that were used, such as questionnaires, diaries and semi-structured interviews. One point that I've noted include that some technologies can lead to obvious instances of deskilling, such as overreliance and use of satellite navigation systems.
Some preliminary findings include that some users are interested in certain applications, notably video telephony applications such as Skype or FaceTime (wikipedia). Technology, it was also said, can be readily accepted. I also noted a really good phrase, which is that good technology transcends all age groups.
All in all, a very interesting event. I have to say that I wasn't quite sure what I was letting myself in for. I didn't really know too much about what was on the agenda before the morning of the seminar. I was more guided by the words of the title that sparked an interest.
The most significant point that I took away from the day was that my conception of what an assistive technology was had been fundamentally broadened. Another take away point related to the importance of considering the types of learning that are appropriate to different user groups.
It was also great fun to hear about different research projects and gain an awareness of new ideas and frameworks. Learning about subjects that are slightly outside our own discipline has the potential to be both rewarding and refreshing.