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Collaboration with people who are not present in our immediate vicinity is part of almost everyone's professional or social life. Especially this is seen in areas such as standards, guidelines, and regulations development, knowledge management, engineering, software and content development, usability and accessibility, scientific research, and education. Face-to-face meetings can bring collaborators together but travel can often be difficult for financial, health, safety or other reasons.
Collaboration technologies, such as phones, faxes, letters, e-mail, videoconferences, and the Web aim to make up the missed face-to-face opportunities. People come together in synchronous or asynchronous virtual spaces for meetings, working sessions and informal discussions that help to build up the feeling of communities. Many earlier technologies had intrinsic problems with accessibility, for instance, people who are blind had problems in reading faxes and people who are deaf had problems in participating teleconferences. Today, the Internet and Web are not only bringing together individuals and enable them to collaborate in new, and innovative ways, but also they enable us to develop collaboration tools and technologies that are accessible for people with disabilities if we only pay attention to their needs.
Commonly used collaboration tools include instant messaging, text chat or Internet Relay Chat (IRC), shared desktops, and teleconferencing for synchronous interaction, as well as e-mail, mailing lists, Weblogs and both W3C and proprietary format documents for asynchronous interaction. Research has been also done on providing gestures, face expressions, tone of voice and 3D surrogates. Those may help to prevent wrong impressions when we don't know our collaborators very well.
Some collaborative technologies are relatively easy to make accessible. For instance, electronic text in an electronic whiteboard can be easily transformed to suit several senses when the text is available. Standard interfaces support the use of assistive technologies, such as screen readers or braille displays. Other technologies need more work. Spatial interfaces need to be operable also without a pointing device and drawing should offer enough descriptions and structure. Time dependent technologies need to offer user the control of the flow, e.g. select what competing information to hear at the sequential audio channel or slow down the interface to a user with mobility or cognitive disability. These user may also benefit from an automatic floor passing mechanism that let's everyone contribute in their own pace. Collaboration in audio needs automatic captions or human captioners that help to record the meeting for users with hearing disabilities.
Many research opportunities exists in better supporting the accessibility of current and future Web technologies for collaboration. The WAI Research and Development Interest Group (RDIG) [RDIG] aims to make the researchers aware of accessibility challenges early in the research process. It organizes Web teleconference events on different research topics; the first RDIG event was on Accessible Collaboration Technologies [Collab2003]. The following sections present collaboration needs, and collaboration related research themes, problems and some solutions gathered together from this event.
2. Collaboration needs
2.1 Sharing documents, slides, images, multimedia
The basis of Web collaboration is to be able to share the material asynchronously on the Web. If the material is done according to W3C standards and WAI guidelines [WCAG1.0] it should be accessible. This is true also with slides and other presentation material. In addition, user agents need to follow the WAI guidelines [UAAG1.0] so that it is possible to tailor, adjust and share the material with various assistive technologies or even with mobile devices [Gupta2003].
Sometimes the materials need to be shared synchronously to give collaborators discussing about them a chance to look the same part of the material or know when a presenter is changing a page. This area has a lot of research possibilities.
2.2 Sharing discussions, comments
Being able to discuss issues and share the discussions often related to the shared Web material is essential in collaboration. Asynchronous discussions are usually shared in discussion lists that visualize the discussion threads. Navigating those threads easily and searching for messages should be accessible, for instance, skipping between the navigation bar and the message area should be easy without a pointing device.
Discussions can also happen in the context of the documents. Comments can be shared by using metadata based Web annotations [Kahan2001] without a need to jump between a discussion list and the document while trying to find the right context. Similarly shared bookmarks help to collect and categorize interesting Web pages so that collaborators have easier time to find them later [Koivunen2003].
Also synchronous discussions need user control to be accessible. They can happen by using different media. For instance, when text chats are transformed to audio, the user needs to be able to control if he or she wants to listen to that or other audio conversations, such as the teleconference. Users who are deaf need captions of the audio, so they need to follow several text windows and may need a way to stop and resume text streams. Users also need a way to synchronize text with video, information about gestures, facial expressions etc. to the discussion context as otherwise they may change the meaning of some other data. Users in a teleconference need accessible information about the speaker queue, the current speaker, and when their turn is approaching.
2.3 Sharing social awareness
Awareness of other collaborators is important. It includes issues, such as, when a user is available to others and when not, what their interests are and do they match with the other users interests, and what are the top discussions in some areas. In addition, to offer different views to what is going on, the users should be also able to do their own queries about user activities, their interests and matches. Often this category offers innovative visualization that need to be done accessible also for users who don't see, hear or have other disabilities [Lee2003].
3. Collaboration research themes, problems and some solutions
3.1 Applying the WAI guidelines for collaboration technologies
Existing W3C WAI guidelines, such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) [WCAG1.0], User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (UAAG 1.0) [UAAG1.0] and Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (ATAG 1.0) [ATAG1.0] are a good starting point also for collaborative Web tools. Accessibility barriers discussed in these guidelines include 1) Missing alternatives to the media used for communication e.g. captions for audio discussions; alt text and long desc for images; descriptive voice for video information; and explanations for white board drawings. 2) Easy navigation both within and between different collaborative tools utilizing different media. 3) Users with cognitive disabilities may need images explaining text in text chat or other similar tools.
While the WAI guidelines may be abstract enough to cover many collaboration needs, we probably need techniques targeted for this area to explain how to apply the guidelines.
3.2 Controlling the synchronous information streams
Collaborative tools often provide inadequate means for control when information in one media needs to be transformed to an alternative media. This is especially true when going from spatial e.g. visual media to sequential e.g. audio media. For instance, audio users need to be able to control when to hear presenter's speech and when some other audio, such as when they are navigating a structure of a drawing the presenter is talking about.
More research is needed to develop accessible controls that best support alternative media in synchronous communication tools.
3.3 Accessible design principles for social interfaces
Social interfaces offer users real time information about the communities they belong to [Lee2003]. They let people be active in collaboratively creating, reviewing, and categorizing content, and planning future activities.They also offer information about the individual users in the community, their location, who is available for a chat, and what documents the community cares about.
Social information needs to be available to users with disabilities. For instance, users who don't see need to get information about who is talking, or that someone just left the meeting room. An important question is also what guidelines are needed to ensure that information related to privacy is available in accessible way. For instance, a person who does not see needs to be able to know when video of him or her is being casted to other users.
As Web technologies develop and can provide experiences that resemble face-to-face meetings and vice versa face-to-face meetings offer support technologies available normally available in online meetings using computer technologies we need more research in understanding what information is important in social interfaces and how it can be provided in accessible ways.
3.4 Collaborative support for accessibility
Communities may be able to provide accessibility information collaboratively. For instance, [Zimmermann2003] had an example of correcting captions in real time by the user community. Other similar examples include 1) collaboratively adding explanations to drawings, images, video, or a bus route coordinates. 2) helping someone to find their way by looking the video and GPS information they send. 3) people in the same bus/train/location may volunteer to answer questions.
Collaborative Web annotations and bookmarks e.g. based on Annotea [Kahan2001] can be used to add accessibility information. More research is needed on the tasks it is being used to and the tools best supporting this.
3.5 Innovative visualizations need innovative alternatives for accessibility
Visualizations often help collaboration and awareness by expressing information about the community, such as the areas of interest or expertize or the current availability of fellow workers. Some visualizations show connections and differences in huge amounts of information in innovative ways. For instance, a community example in [Lee2003] highlight groups of users with colored dots grouped together; a visual user sees different dots almost immediately and can ask more information about interesting ones. Visualizations can also be part of the presentation material for the group.
Accessible graphics and visualizations is an area with a lot of research opportunities. One area is to understand how to best describe the experience of a seeing user and automatically create audio descriptions. Another area is how to associate the visualizations with a list of questions that seeing users might ask and let users query other things as well.
Users with cognitive disabilities may also benefit from innovative visualizations when collaborating. These visualization could, for instance show the users in the virtual conference and change their appearance when they are talking or when they are in a line waiting to ask questions. Other visualizations might help to understand the documents or slides by adding more images to them. Some research exists on using gestures, sound, and touch to present the spatial relations, but more is needed.
4. Future directions
The first WAI RDIG research event created awareness of accessibility and collaboration but also listed several questions that need further research. Some of the research questions that came up will be examined in their own RDIG events in the future. Currently, the group is planning an event an accessible visualization as a result from the discussions emerging from the collaboration event.
The group also plans to revisit earlier topics, such as accessible collaboration technologies, hoping to see increase on research.
Collaboration is an important part of many people's life and today's collaboration technologies can and should support any user independent of his or her disabilities. Some guidelines and solutions for collaboration technologies already exists in the general WAI guidelines. However, there are many areas where more research is needed to find out how to best support the collaborators that have disabilities so that they can get the same information as other collaborators.
This research will not only help users with disabilities but also users who need to participate to collaboration from environments not supporting all visual, tactile or audio means available to other participants. For instance, some users may be in leading edge collaboration rooms surrounded with cameras, microphones, and other multimedia technology, while other users need to participate via using their cell phones from airports or other noisy environments.
[ATAG1.0] Treviranus, J., McCathieNevile, C., Jacobs, I., Richards, J. (eds.), Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, W3C Recommendation, 3 February 2000. http://www.w3.org/TR/ATAG10/.
[Collab2003] Proceedings of the WAI Research and Development Interest Group event on Making Collaboration Technologies Accessible for Persons with Disabilities, April, 28, 2003. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2003/06/event01-proceedings.html
[Gupta2003] Gupta., S., and Kaiser, G., CRUNCH - Web-based Collaboration for Persons with Disabilities. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2003/03/gupta-kaiser.htm
[Kahan2001] Kahan, J., Koivunen, M., Prud'Hommeaux, E., Swick, R., Annotea: An Open RDF Infrastructure for Shared Web Annotations, in Proc. of the WWW10 International Conference, Hong Kong, May 2001 (http://www10.org/cdrom/papers/488/index.html).
[Koivunen2003] Koivunen, M., Swick, R., and Prud'hommeaux, E., Annotea Shared Bookmarks. To be published in KCAP 2004 Annotation workshop proceedings. http://www.w3.org/2001/Annotea/Papers/KCAP03/annoteabm.html
[Lee2003] Lee, A., Social Interaction Web Sites and Web Adaptation, In Proc. ofWAI RDIG event on Making Collaboration Technologies Accessible for Persons with Disabilities, April, 28, 2003. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2003/03/lee.htm
[RDIG] The WAI Research and Development Interest Group home page. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/
[UAAG1.0] Jacobs, I., Gunderson, J., and Hansen, E. User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, W3C Recommendation 17 December 2002. http://www.w3.org/TR/UAAG10/
[WCAG1.0] Chisholm, W., Vanderheiden, G., and Jacobs, I. (eds.), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, W3C Recommendation, 5 May 1999. http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/
[Zimmermann2003] Zimmermann, G., Translation, Modality Transformation and Assistance Services -- Research and Infrastructure Development, In Proc. ofWAI RDIG event on Making Collaboration Technologies Accessible for Persons with Disabilities, April, 28, 2003. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2003/03/Zimmermann.htm
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