For Keith Vertanen, the satisfaction of helping people with visual impairments is a byproduct of the challenge he seeks.
Vertanen’s research will offer more texting options not only to the blind community, but to the situationally impaired, too.
“My interest stemmed from sighted text entry research. The decoder (a touchscreen keyboard recognizer) is so accurate—we craved a bigger undertaking,” Vertanen explains. So he dug into literature and consulted with users who are blind to determine the need for better eyes-free text-entry options.
Existing accessibility solutions are slow. “There is a delay because users have to search for the target, key, or graphic and wait for audio feedback,” Vertanen says. By sliding a finger around on the touchscreen, the system announces via text-to-speech what their finger is over. When they find the element they want (it could be a key on a touchscreen keyboard), they double tap with their searching finger or they “split tap” by tapping with a second finger. The interaction technique was developed out of research at the University of Washington and is now a standard accessibility feature on iPhone and Android phones.
With Vertanen’s prototype, users with visual impairments imagine the size, position, and orientation of the Qwerty keyboard. They are asked to tap out letters, and eventually sentences. So far, users accurately tap their intended text on the imaginary display about 50 percent of the time.
There’s more work to be done. From this noisy data, Vertanen asks two questions: Can we develop new and improved algorithms to more accurately recognize the user’s intended text? And can we find ways users can provide the recognizer with a better signal while still allowing fast entry?
Vertanen’s research will offer more texting options not only to the blind community, but to the situationally impaired, too: “Those times when you cannot attend to your phone, like when you’re walking. Or perhaps we can treat your airline tray table as a touch-typing surface—but without a visual display.”
His research will also impact the devices of the future which may be designed without a text display.
“These are hard problems to solve. The other challenge is how to make error-correction efficient and pleasant. This is especially true if people are entering difficult text such as proper names or acronyms. A complementary approach is, how do you design text-entry interfaces that allow users to be more explicit (albeit slower) about parts of their text they anticipate will be difficult to recognize,” Vertanen asks.