Washington, July 16 : University of Washington researchers have devised a way to enable computer software programmes to instantly adapt to vision and motor abilities of their users, which usually vary from person to person.
The university team made a presentation on the new system, called Supple, at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in Chicago on Tuesday.
In a paper describing the system, the researcher said that their new approach to design would put each person through a brief skills test, and then generate a mathematically-based version of the user interface optimised for his or her vision and motor abilities.
This is the first time a research team has offered an instantly customisable approach to user interfaces.
"Assistive technologies are built on the assumption that it's the people who have to adapt to the technology. We tried to reverse this assumption, and make the software adapt to people," said lead author Krzysztof Gajos, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering.
The researchers revealed that tests of the system showed that it closed the performance gap between disabled and able-bodied users by 62 percent, and that disabled users strongly preferred the automatically generated interfaces.
"This shows that automatically generating personalized interfaces really does work, and the technology is ready for prime time," said Dan Weld, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, who is also a co-author on the study. The system begins with a one-time assessment of a person's mouse pointing, dragging and clicking skills. A ring of dots appears on the screen and as each dot lights up, the user must quickly click on it. The task is repeated with different-sized dots.
Other prompts ask the participant to click and drag, select from a list, and click repeatedly on one spot. Participants can move the cursor using any type of device.
The test takes about 20 minutes for an able-bodied person or up to 90 minutes for a person with motor disabilities.
After the test, an optimisation program calculates how long it would take the person to complete various computer tasks, and accordingly creates the interface that maximizes that person's accuracy and speed when using a particular program.
When the system was tested on six able-bodied people and 11 people with motor impairments last year, the resulting interfaces showed that one size definitely did not fit all.
"There is a temptation to think that we can come up with a universal design. But if we look at the results, the design that helps one person will actually be hurtful to a person with a different set of abilities," Gajos said.
"From an accessibility standpoint, it's always better to change the environment, rather than use specialized assistive technologies. Supple could be useful for many people with limitations in function, ranging from the elderly, to people with low vision, to people with hand tremors," said Kurt Johnson, a UW professor of rehabilitation medicine who coordinated the tests.
The researchers say that the program may also be helpful in creating interfaces that can adapt to different sizes of screen, for example on handheld devices.
Gajos, however, reckons that deploying this system would require a radically different approach to designing computer interfaces, and predicts that the first applications are likely to be for Web-based applications.
The researchers also plan to look at adapting interfaces that were designed in the traditional way into ones that Supple can use.