Conference Abstracts - Kel Smith

Innovations in Accessibility: Designing for Digital Outcasts

Kel Smith
Anikto LLC

The stuttering curve of innovation can be interpreted as a series of brief flashes, not unlike the effect one has when viewing a scene illuminated by strobe light. Opinions were highly polarized when the virtual world community Second Life first gained mainstream attention in 2008. Businesses bought into the model with initial enthusiasm, then quickly evacuated upon realizing little social or economic momentum to sustain interest. The platform itself cultivated an unsavory reputation. Public scrutiny cynically elevated virtual world participants as mere caricatures, picturing introverted misanthropes living vicariously through their avatars, operating more in tune with a bizarre, futuristic cartoon landscape than their real lives.

Then a funny thing happened. As Second Life gained and lost currency in the private sector, a surprisingly vital demographic began to emerge among people with disabilities. These users turned to virtual worlds to find education, commerce and fellowship despite their visual, cognitive and motor skill impairments - impressive for an interface comprised of three-dimensional graphics whose mastery required strong hand-eye coordination.

Technology continues to advance, bringing greater fidelity and complexity to the online space. Design teams who work with virtual worlds and augmented reality face dynamic challenges bringing forth experiences that satisfy user requirements and business needs. Innovation is a constant battle between "what if?" and "so what?" how do we identify the key parameters to continue developing marketable products?

From a initial inspection, it would appear that gaming interfaces and touchscreen devices have little to offer people with disabilities. The experiences are highly visual, with complex user interfaces spanning multiple modalities. For users who are unaccustomed to expanded level of multitasking, the resulting cognitive load can be topically severe. However, people with a wide range of disabilities - visual impairments, motor skill disorders, degenerative illness, limited mobility, and cognitive difficulties - comprise a rich ecosystem of individuals for who possess attributes that cannot readily be changed. These needs are rarely understood, yet alone factored into the design lifecycle. As a result, inclusive design can wind up on the "back burner" of project scopes without sufficient championing during the specification process.

Recognizing this, researchers from the University of Sussex (UK) have introduced the term "digital outcasts" to describe people left behind the technology innovation curve. The term is applicable to people with disabilities, those living with terminal illness/injury, or patients undergoing long-term rehabilitation. As a result, these populations must sift through the digital landscape to develop their own solutions; cases involving people with disabilities often comprise the most forward-thinking scenarios - even if the disabled are not considered part of the target demographic.

The period of time from late 2009 until early 2011 has been particularly fascinating. People are programming in Arduino, ripping apart Wii game consoles, creating haptic interfaces from raw materials, retro-fitting Kinect systems and exploring augmented reality platforms. Much of this activity resides within the disability and healthcare sectors, with a very specific (and personal) end in mind, and these have applications to workplace software as well.

This presentation will explore various forms of digital niche construction implementations of emerging technologies to barrier-free digital experiences, spanning a variety of therapeutic contexts. Practical examples to be discussed will include such platforms as the Nintendo Wii, haptic interfaces, virtual prosthetics, text-to-speech functionality, eye-tracking, adaptive mobile devices, iPhone games and Second Life.

More information about this work can be found at


The term "digital outcasts" was first introduced by Gareth White, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, and is used here by permission.

White, G., Fitzpatrick, G. and McAllister, G. (2008). Toward accessible 3D virtual environments for the blind and visually impaired. Retrieved May 20, 2008 courtesy the authors from