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The FreedomBox Flexible User Interface, A Step Towards Universal Access

Mike Calvo
Serotek Corporation
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55403
Email: mcalvo@freedombox.cc

My name is Mike Calvo and I am CEO of Serotek Corporation, the maker of FreedomBox. Today I would like to take you under the skin of FreedomBox and talk about our Flexible User Interface - or FUI in computer terminology. We believe that our Flexible User Interface is a breakthrough in adaptive technology. It is a major step towards providing universal access - technology that adapts to the needs of the user, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the needs of the technology. We are not all the way there yet. But we believe that with the FUI we have overcome the major hurdle. Now the challenges are simply applying that breakthrough to whatever access methodology works for the user.

What do we mean by flexible user interface? Well the term is really pretty descriptive. We mean that our technology provides the capability for users to interface with the system using any mechanism that works for them. We all know that in the conventional world of computers and Internet access devices, the interface is graphics based - a GUI. The GUI was, itself a break through of sorts for people with sight. It allowed them to interact with the computer using a mouse, pointing at the task they wanted to accomplish, and clicking or double-clicking the mouse button to activate the command. As you can probably imagine, the GUI was a big step back for folks like me. But eventually people came along with screen readers and those of us with the persistence, time, and resources learned to adapt to this less than convenient world.

But the concept of the GUI did point out a very simple access methodology - one where the user identifies and selects the process, rather than calling up the process using complex commands.

The FUI is built on that same, simple principle. The user identifies the process and selects it. What we have added - the Flexible part of FUI - is an open process whereby the method of identifying the process can be whatever works for the user - voice, graphic image on screen, tactile image on a Braille display or any other methodology of conveying information from the system to the user. Likewise, the method by which the user selects the process he or she wishes is whatever works for the user - keyboard, mouse, voice command, touch screen, puffer switch, eye movement tracker, light pen - it really doesn't matter to us. What we need from the user is a signal that "Yeah, that's the one I want." With that piece of information we have the equivalent of a double-click from a mouse.

Now the flexible user interface also has another very unusual attribute. It lets you mix and match how you input information. You can speak part of a command, then enter information from a keyboard or keypad, for example, all as part of the same command. This is pretty useful when you are conveying difficult speech recognition information such as URL's or e-mail addresses. Persons with the ability to use more than one input methodology can do so with the FUI - just as in a GUI interface you might use both keyboard and mouse.

We don't limit it to two methods or three methods. We'll take the command information from any recognized input device in the sequence given.

Now before you ask me to demonstrate the use of an eye-tracker or a brainwave reader, let me tell you that adding a device to the FUI does take a bit of effort. We are proceeding to add devices as fast as we can, given our resources, and we have not yet found a device that can be hooked to a computer but can't interface to the FUI. What I will demonstrate for you is use of voice and keyboard.

This little device is a FreedomBox. FreedomBox is designed primarily to provide online access to the FreedomBox Network and the Worldwide Web. It also provides off-line application access to some very useful applications. Anyone who is interested in a complete demonstration, please see me after the presentation. We'll show you all of the features and send some e-mails, go shopping, and do other fun things.

Demo of FreedomBox -- approximately 5 minutes.

What I would like you to notice is that this is a very simple process. It doesn't take months of intense training to learn. You do not have to memorize commands or sequences. The FreedomBox guides you through each process and you act by selecting. If you know what you want to do, you can jump right ahead and do it. You don't have to wait for the menus to be spoken. But if you are like the millions of people who have never used a computer before, the system guides you and helps you do whatever you want to do.

I would like you to also think about this type of interface and what it can mean. Back a year to two ago we coined the phrase "electronic curb-cut" and it became an almost instant cliché in the industry. I'm sure that many of the other people who have used the phrase think they invented it. And maybe they did as well. But the analogy is valid. We have a process that is not only useful to people with a wide range of disabilities, it is useful to people who have the instant "disability" of having their hands full or their eyes occupied. It's useful to people who just don't feel like sitting in front of a screen and using a point and click interface the way the computer demands they interface. Add a wireless connection and they can wander from kitchen to easy chair and stay online.

We believe it is a logical technology for mobile surfing using PDAs or cellular phones. It is also the right technology to open access in the public arena - in information kiosks, libraries, schools, supermarkets. We think it belongs in corporate intranets making corporate information and key work applications broadly accessible.

One of the things we are really excited about is how easy it is for kids to learn to use it. They take to it almost instantly. FreedomBox makes it possible for children to begin using computers at a very early age, far sooner than they would be able to master the complexities of Jaws for Windows or one of the other screen reader technologies. We don't suggest that it is a substitute for developing the kind of computer skills that are possible with these sophisticated screen readers. Rather it is a more gentle introduction suitable for children who aren't yet ready for the more complex interfaces. We believe that we can have them using the computer and enjoying many interactive learning tools before they learn to read.

We would like to throw the challenge to you - how can it help you improve the quality of life for the people you work with who are faced with unnecessary barriers? Our motto is that "people are not disabled, technology that denies access is disabled." The Flexible User Interface is a big step in enabling disabled information technology.

Thank you.

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