Misericordia’s Assistive Technology Research Helps Open Internet to All Ages, Abilities

Denis Anson, M.S., O.T.R., the director of research and development at the Misericordia University Assistive Technology Research Institute, is a member of the global team of researchers developing Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure or GPII. In the photo illustration, he showcases various pages of GPII.

Denis Anson, M.S., O.T.R., the director of research and development at the Misericordia University Assistive Technology Research Institute, is a member of the global team of researchers developing Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure or GPII. In the photo illustration, he showcases various pages of GPII.

DALLAS, Pa. – Alice, Dave, Davey, Elaine, Elmer, Elod and Livia do not exist in the literal sense. Their names and personal profiles are fictitious, but the role these characters are playing in the development of a revolutionary assistive technology cannot be overestimated.

In cyberspace, these seven case studies provide faces that help to identify a technology that can be hard to grasp. Each of these personas represents someone you may know or who you can imagine living in your neighborhood. They embody the kinds of limitations that are common to using modern technology. Each is being used to demonstrate the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), a system currently under development that allows each user's personal preferences and needs to be stored "in the cloud,'' and recalled to any device.

Each GPII user's preferences is referenced by an identifying number that can be stored on a plastic card or key – sometimes the size of a credit card – which contains a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) computer chip that is readable by computers, terminals or smartphones armed with Near Field Communication (NFC). The number also can be stored in a ring or a patterned image that can be held up to a webcam. When activated, GPII calls the owner's personal preferences onto the current device, and automatically configures it to operate the way the individual prefers.

Oftentimes, people who require special tools or settings on their computers and mobile devices to use them effectively are left with few alternatives without GPII technology. They can make proper adjustments to their home computers, smartphones and tablets, but what happens when they leave the comfort of their homes or are without their personally configured device at a library, an airport kiosk or a family member's home? These computers are configured for "typical'' users and present insurmountable barriers to people with special needs.

Take Elod, for example. He is a 62-year-old retiree who has low vision, according to his profile that was fabricated by researchers. He needs assistive technology to properly access the computer, the World Wide Web and all the information and opportunity it has to offer. In order to use the computer effectively, Elod needs the text and icons on the screen to be larger than normal. When he touches his GPII preferences card to the computer, it obtains information about how it should look for him. With one swipe of his RFID card, Elod's home or public computer loads his personal preferences, in this case, for full-screen magnification at 200-percent with a blue background and other private nuances. Once finished, Elod swipes his card against the computer a second time and it reverts back to the default state for other users.

"He didn't have to ask anybody for help,'' says Denis Anson, M.S., O.T.R., a member of the global team of researchers developing GPII and also the director of research and development at the Misericordia University Assistive Technology Research Institute (ATRI). "He didn't have to reveal that he didn't see well. With GPII, you do not have to request your accommodations because they follow you wherever you go.''

The card is also secure, as it does not contain any of the users' personal information, such as Social Security numbers, bank accounts, credit cards or other valuable information. The card carries only a number associated with a preference file in the cloud. While each person is different, there may be many people who share a single preference file, just as many people wear the same shoe size, according to Anson.

Livia, another of the GPII personas, is a 15-year-old girl who is legally blind. She uses her key to open an on-board screen reader on the computer. Since there are multiple screen readers available on the market for the visually impaired, her profile loads the one she is accustomed to using and her other preferences, including voice controls.

The average person reads about 500 words per minute, according to Anson, and speaks about 150 words. To allow Livia to keep up in school, she has learned to understand a specific voice at her reading speed of 470 words per minute. For her to work effectively, the GPII must provide the screen reader with the controls she knows, the voice she is familiar with, the rate of talking she can understand, and many other settings. Adjusting all of these settings by hand on an unfamiliar computer, especially for someone with Livia's physical challenges, would be nearly impossible. With GPII, all of the settings are automatically adjusted to her needs. As Livia moves from class to class in school, or to the computer at the public library, her GPII preferences assure that she can keep pace with an academic class, for example, or simply understand sentences or stories.

"For some people, the personal preference file will include hundreds of individual settings for multiple products. Since the preference file lives in the cloud, it will be available for any connected device, assuring it will behave just the way you want,'' Anson adds about the computer's reaction to the already established personal preferences.

The overarching goal of the GPII project is to ensure that everyone can access and use information technology, including the Internet and smartphones, to the fullest extent possible, no matter the barrier. Whether the limitation is due to disability, literacy, digital literacy or aging, GPII can assure accessibility. GPII does not create new technologies or services. Instead, it is creating the infrastructure for making the development, identification, delivery and use of assistive technologies for the web easier and more cost efficient and effective.

"GPII is a transport system,'' Anson explains. "It does not make assistive technology. It is like Amazon, as it delivers your technology. But unlike Amazon, GPII delivers your technology to wherever you are. Your preferences can be delivered in seconds.''

The Internet and modern technology admittedly can be overwhelming for some people, whether because of age or skillset. Consider Elaine, an elderly grandmother who wants to communicate with her children and grandchildren through e-mail and the exchange of family pictures. GPII's profile for this persona – after she swipes her RFID card – includes the Easy 1-2-3 program that features large icons – a mailbox for e-mails, a photo album for pictures and an address book for contacts – that easily identifies their function. Unlike some systems that allow users to communicate only with other users of that technology, the easy-to-understand features of Easy 1-2-3 overlie familiar programs like Gmail, Picasa and a Google address book.

"Everything is all nice and big and easy to use,'' Anson acknowledges while demonstrating it in the ATRI lab in John J. Passan Hall. "It is a different skin around the same program everyone else uses. Elaine doesn't have to know that all computers don't work this way.

"She can go to her neighbor's or the Bridge Club and their computer knows her interface, her e-mail, her photo library. She can show her pictures or a nice message. When she's done all the stuff goes away off the neighbor's computer and she hasn't left anything behind.''

Graphic elements also encourage user friendliness. An e-mail is designed to look like a postcard and contains an image of the recipient where a stamp is usually placed; large rectangular buttons contain easy-to-understand destinations for "keep," "reply," and "throw away.'' Once you hit send for an e-mail, the postcard is tucked neatly into an envelope, loads onto a mail truck and is sent to its destination "so there is no doubt that I sent an e-mail,'' Anson adds.

Additionally, the GPII interface allows users to adjust text size, fonts, line spacing, contrast, language, foreground and background, and more. It will also be applicable for ATMs, cell phones, kiosks and other portable devices. Banks in Spain are planning to field test it within the year, according to Anson.

GPII has been in development since 2011. Europe was the first to commit financial resources. Since then, the United States, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research or NIDILRR, and Canada have supported it as well. More than 50 researchers with backgrounds in computer programming, engineering, information technology, occupational therapy and more are engaged in the project.

Anson is working to develop the GPII Shopping and Alerting Aid tool. It will help people with physical and other related challenges determine what assistive or adaptive technologies they need. The tool enables users to select from 149 options that identify need under categories like hearing, vision, touch, operability, speech, understanding orientation and more. Each area contains subsets that expands the query and, in turn, narrows the field of options.

"Simply giving a person with a limitation a list of hundreds of possible products is of little use. It is too much information about things I don't care about,'' says Anson. "The user, though, can indicate they would like larger print and to be able to set the text and background color. The Shopping Aid can filter thousands of possible products to just those that provide the requested features.

"Now I can look through a small set of products to find the things I want,'' Anson adds. "The people who manufacture assistive technologies currently are not competitors for GPII. GPII is the way of delivering their products to their customers. It saves time, money and, more importantly, it helps people in need navigate countless products in the commercial marketplace that may or may not meet their needs.''

GPII will advance to the testing phase by late 2016. It will be showcased at the annual Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America Conference in Arlington, Va., in June.


For more information about Misericordia University, please call (570) 674-6400 or log on to www.misericordia.edu. Founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1924, Misericordia University is Luzerne County's first four-year college and offers 34 academic programs on the graduate and undergraduate levels in full- and part-time formats.Misericordia University ranks in the top tier of the Best Regional Universities – North category of U.S. News and World Report's 2016 edition of Best Colleges, and was designated a 2016 Best Northeastern College by the Princeton Review.

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