IBM will research mobile access for the elderly, illiterate

IBM is teaming with researchers in academic institutions in Japan and India to explore an open, common user interface for mobile devices that will make them easier for aged or illiterate people around the world to use.

The company is doing the research with the National Institute of Design (NID) in India and the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST) at the University of Tokyo, it said Tuesday.

The findings of the research and any applications or technology developed will be released to the open-source community, said Nitendra Rajput, Open Collaborative Research lead at IBM Research India. IBM's Open Collaborative Research program aims to promote innovation through research collaboration between universities and industry.

Working with the open-source community will help speed up the adoption of the technologies, and attract developers to build applications for the target populations, Rajput added.

The research is focused on improving access to the mobile phone because of the affordability and proliferation of these devices, Rajput said. The researchers expect that the mobile phone rather than the PC will be the key device by which the aged and the illiterate will access IT because of its relative simplicity of use.

The company decided to do the research in these two countries as Japan has a large aging population, while India has a large illiterate population, Rajput said. IBM has research labs in both countries.

A large number of people in India are not significant users of IT because they cannot afford PCs, and because they are illiterate, according to Rajput. The elderly in Japan may be able to afford IT, but they are uncomfortable with complex interfaces, he said.

The aim of the research is to find common points and differences in the response to IT by these two populations, and to work on a multimode interface that would perhaps be accessible by both categories, Rajput said.

The findings from these two countries will be extrapolated to other countries around the world that have similar characteristics, IBM said.

Most of the technologies to improve access to information through mobile phones are already available, but a lot of ethnographic field research needs to be done to find out which combination of technologies would be found useful by the two target groups -- the aged and the illiterate, Rajput said.

While voice would appear to be the most relevant technology for access to information on mobile phones for illiterate people, it may not be the best option for presenting information such as statistical tables or pictorial data, Rajput said.

IBM and partners are also looking at other ways to access information, including the use of images as an accessory to text and audio content. Information on pesticides could for example be presented to farmers with visuals such as a picture of the crop, he said.

The researchers also plan to use accelerometers to design interfaces that are more closely related to the physical environment. A number of mobile phones already use accelerometers for interface control.

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