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CAPTCHA’s and accessibility have been hotly debated in newsgroups, the press and blogs. Many people are feeling marginalised by their use and frustrated at not being able to access the online services they want.

Facebook, for example, has made heavy use of CAPTCHA even once you’re logged in (and is rumored to be reinstating it). Google also uses CAPTCHA although they have looked into providing audio alternatives to the visual CAPTCHA (at the time of writing however two people have reported to me that the audio wasn’t working). These are two of the fastest growing Internet companies on the web today who are setting precedents of how web pages are delivered.

As the saying goes here in the UK when you’re queuing to get into a nightclub “If your name’s not down you’re not coming in”. CAPTCHA’s are the online equivalent of the unfriendly bouncer working the doors.

CAPTCHA: If your name’s not down you’re not coming in is published over on the RNIB Web Access Blog, this article looks at the issues around CAPTCHA and accessibility, who it affects and possible solutions.

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Slooging is the new tagging

tagging the new world

Find searching in Second Life a bit tricky? Frustrated with digging around in your inventory and friends lists for landmarks or avatars you can’t remember the name of? Well help is at hand with sloog.org, a bookmarking, or tagging, service for Second Life.

Sloog works in the same way as del.icio.us, Digg, and Magnolia with the only difference being that you are tagging and saving stuff in-world rather than tagging and saving web pages. What I particularly love about it is that you can use it as a research tool to find and share places of interest to you in-world as well as find out what’s popular.

On my journeys through Second Life I’ve been seeking out people and places who have an interest in accessibility but one thing that I’ve noticed is that while there are a few of us with an interest there isn’t enough promotion of accessibility in Second Life. Sloog is an ideal tool for doing this. By just simply tagging appropriate landmarks and places with “accessibility”, for example, you can add to the body of collective knowledge that is slowly accumulating. So if you come across people or places that are worth sharing with the community then tag for accessibility on Sloog.

Sloog is also a great tool if you find the SL viewer difficult to navigate. You can easily find a particular landmark either through your bookmarked places or by searching the Sloog website and then use the teleport function to go right to it. This means you bypass the laborious process of opening up the SL search panel, finding the right search tab, typing your search, then navigating to the one you want.This is really handy if you find the accessibility of the viewer hard and a great example of how something that wasn’t intended to be a tool to help access has in fact facilitated accessibility.

Sloog really is a very cool example of where the real world meets the second world, a Web 2.0 mashup delivered in Second Life giving rise to a whole new term: slashup.

To start using Sloog visit the Miso Miso headquarters in-world, to grab a sloog HUD, follow the easy to install instructions and away you go.

One thumb to rule them all

AssitiveWare have published some excellent videos of people with disabilities accessing the web using various access technologies. Amongst them are a few gamers accessing in virtual worlds using a combination of assistive technologies to zap dragons and outwit the enemy.

In One Thumb to Rule (below) Mike Phillips, a gamer and freelance technology writer born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), explores the frontiers of accessibility, playing games such as World of Warcraft and Unreal Tournament 2004 with just his thumb, a proximity switch, a switch interface. Mike has very little capability to move aside from his thumb which is what he relies on to navigate through virtual worlds battling with dragons and soldiers. While he has restricted speech he has no such problem while on the web as he IM’s up to four people at a time, writes games reviews, is a digital artist and is writing his first novel. The video shows Mike showcasing all this and his assistive technologies at a conference.

This is just one of eleven fantastic videos showing how people with mobility problems can crack the web using just the keyboard and switches. Who needs a mouse to slay a dragon?

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the people who manage domain names, yesterday announced that as of Monday 15th internet domain names would go international.

What this means is that rather than websites being forced to use Roman characters such as .com, .org, .net etc at the end of their domain, countries can now use their native alphabets. This is great news and highlights the importance of recognising the need for people to browse the internet in their native language without resorting to the use of the Roman alphabet. As ICANN themselves have stressed “the internationalization of the Internet’s domain name system must be accomplished through standards that are open, non-proprietary, and fully compatible with the Internet’s existing end-to-end model and that preserve globally unique naming in a universally resolvable public name space” .

This takes us a step closer to making the internet a truly global, accessible space although its no small irony that this will turn the browsing experience of those of us who do not read Arabic, Chinese or Tamil on its head. For example Chinese users write Chinese characters by typing a phonetic version of words in Roman letters called pinyin. Computer software programs then provide a list of associated characters that the user then chooses depending on the meaning of the word – a bit like predictive text on a mobile phone. Without that know how or software a non Chinese speaker isn’t going to be able to type Chinese domain names. Instead people are going to have to resort to using links from search engines and other sites to access websites with localised domain names.

ICANN is going cautiously though and is planning a set of test sites in eleven languages: Arabic, Persian, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese, and Tamil. This is partly to ensure that the roll out is both secure and stable. Experts predict that while take up will be slow, ICANN doesn’t expect working addresses in the new languages to be available until the end of next year, this will have a huge impact on the estimated 5 billion people who are not on the Internet and who come up against the barrier of language – just one aspect of the digital divide. As Paul Hoffman, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based programmer who created the standards behind the internationalized domain names said the new names “are not for the current users, but for the next billion”. This has been echoed by an Egyptian Minister who says that in Egypt about seven million people, or 10% of the population, use the internet. Most of these users are well-educated and speak at least some English. To get the next 10% of the population online, however, having domain names in Arabic is critical.

As of Monday you can test the new domains yourself as ICANN will post links on its website to test sites in the 11 non-Roman languages. You’ll be able to test the sites, leave comments about them and create your own versions of web pages that use the non-Roman suffixes.

I love the fact that while the business world becomes ever more English-centric all this work is going on to make the web localised; the towers of babel are have long way to go before they get rebuilt yet!

At Oz-IA ast weekend, the Australia Information Architecture conference in Sydney, Gary Bunker and Gabriele Hermansson presented on User Research in Virtual Worlds.

They talked about how their company Hyrdo, have set out to build a research platform to allow user testing within virtual worlds, not only for their experiences there but also of products in real life. This is a great idea on so many levels. Firstly, user testing can be costly and difficult to set up, it’s hard to get cross cultural input in the real world or people may feel out of their comfort zone. What struck me as really exciting however is the idea of being able to carry out user testing by people with disabilities in virtual worlds.

I’ve wanted to see testing of the grid by users with disabilities in Second Life for a while and have been informally chatting to people there about their experiences. You have a community of Residents who are already familiar with the world who are excited about what they can do there and its lack of real life constraints. Being able to solve problems of access through the combined efforts of Residents themselves and trained experts is a positive and effective way forward. Testing in-world also removes some of the potential issues around testing by people with disabilities in-world such as:

  • Travel and costs
  • Supplying equipment, assistive technologies and support
  • Payment and possible conflict of interest if a tester already earns a salary or is on benefits. Presumably payment in Linden Dollars transcends these issues.

Recently there have been some interesting projects set up looking at access for users with visual impairments most notably IBM announcing research in opening up virtual worlds to the blind. Involving users themselves is essential in any design project but especially so when it comes to users with disabilities.

I’m always looking out for people’s opinions and feedback so either post a comment here, email me (accesssecondlife @ gmail dot com), or come and join me in Second Life.

Stuff4Sam

For a two and a half years myself and some friends have been fundraising for a 3 year old friend called Sam who was severely disabled after a car crash. So far, with the £21,o000 raised, we’ve been able to buy him a specially adapted wheelchair so he can get out and about, an FES exercise bike to help him develop his muscles and immunity, and arm extensions so he can take part in the art classes he loves at playgroup.

My journey into Second Life has been inspired by Sam. While I was initially looking to fundraise and raise awareness , I then started to explore it’s technical accessibility and how it works with access technologies. During my travels I’ve met and gathered stories from residents in Second Life,  people otherwise restricted in real life, who have found a whole new channel for expressing themselves. What has impressed me is the level of independence people have felt that goes beyond what an adapted wheelchair or arm extensions can do; if you’re able to access virtual worlds you can independently meet and make friends, go to concerts, nightclubs, classes and generally hang out. What has been most revealing of all however is how those of us who are able bodied can find it more comfortable to meet, communicate and talk frankly to people who are disabled through the protective layer of virtual reality. A level playing field in more ways than one.

I’ve started a Stuff4Sam group in Second Life to help raise awareness and hopefully raise funds for Sam. We’re also looking at how we can make Second Life more accessible to people with disabilities. It’s an open group and I would love for you to come and join us, spread the world and look into technical solutions for making Second Life accessible. Just search for “stuff4sam” in the Groups section of the Search and we’ll pop up – the more the better!

Sam with his new arm extensions

Find your voice in Second Life

A little while ago Second Life released Voice Beta which now means residents can communicate using voice as well as the standard chat and instant messaging. This is great news as it opens the world up to those of us who have trouble typing or can not type.

I’ve been collecting people’s stories and experiences of using SL for a while now trying to fathom how accessible it is to people with disabilities. This has included technical accessibility, compatibility with assistive technologies (such as voice input, voice output and screen magnification) as well as identifying other barriers to access.

What has been most interesting is that as much as I have had feedback on problems people face I have also come across some great examples of how SL has made a positive difference to the lives of many people with disabilities. Making SL voice enabled is just another example as it opens the door to those of us who prefer the spoken to the written word.

Voice in Second Life will offer high-quality communication capabilities with 3D “proximity-based” voice communication. This technology uses spatial awareness, taking distance, direction, and rotation into account, for a more realistic experience. Basically, you’ll be able to tell who is talking in a group since the voice will sound like it’s coming from that direction. We’re also working hard on an initial set of avatar animations, which change and trigger according to the intensity of speech.

Joe Linden, Bringing Voice to Second Life

Something I have heard again and again is that many residents in SL get impatient and fed up when you don’t type quickly or if you have trouble spelling (I can spell but not accurately – I’m lost without a spell checker).

Typing is also a chore if you have learning difficulties, dyslexia, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) , Multiple Sclerosis (MS), arthritis, muscular pain, a broken wrist…the list is endless. Enabling speech therefore comes as a huge relief for many of us. Not only does it mean that you can communicate easily, making SL a level playing field, it also, crucially, gives back a bit of confidence that often comes with these barriers.

I would imagine that even if you already have your own voice input software (where you speak commands in order to use your PC and dictate to write text) that being able to speak rather than dictate into the chat and instant messaging functions speeds things up considerably.

So keep up the good work! While some may criticise Linden Labs and say making SL speech enabled may exclude the profoundly deaf I disagree. We’re not all fortunate to be able to use every channel of communication so lets ensure there are enough channels of communication and provide individuals with a choice rather than force them down one route. One of my colleagues is profoundly deaf and another blind and they have no problem communicating at all thanks to technology and the options it provides.