Archive for October, 2012


October 24, 2012 1 comment

ASSETS is the flagship conference for the ACM special interest group on accessible technology (SIGACCESS).  Unlike many such flagship conferences like CHI and SIGGRAPH, they are a single track conference, keeping the numbers of attendees down under 200. That makes it easier to get a sense of the major players in the community and details about the (self selected) set of most important topics for this community—important for a first time attendees like me.

A great many of the papers were rooted in human computer interaction, drawing on approaches like personas, user modeling, and participatory design, and leveraging evaluation methods common in HCI (though generally without the large number of participants in the studies, due to the difficulty in finding people with cognitive disabilities). Many of the papers seemed to apply well-known HCI method, but some seemed eager to break new ground—notably an HCI linguistic markers paper by Kalman and his colleagues. Other computing disciplines were well represented as well, like image processing and information retrieval. One thing lacking: I was expecting a greater presence from the socio-technical crowd—there was one session that focused on crowdsourcing, but there seems to be great need and opportunity for communities of people with disabilities to connect with each other.

Virginia Tech had a good presence at the meeting. In addition to my poster on mobile interfaces for job placement, Yasmine El-Glaly took part in the doctoral consortium and presented a poster on her spatial reading system for the blind, VT alum Walter Lasecki was part of several papers, and VT REU alum Chloe Fan presented a paper based on her masters thesis work at CMU. The biggest presence was from UMBC, where new faculty Shaun Kane really pushed for a large presence from there—much as VT did with CHI starting a few years ago. Other places with a significant presence include the University of Colorado, the University of Rochester, CUNY, the University of Washington, and IBM. The most highly visible leaders included Andrew Sears, Clayton Lewis, Shari Trewin, and Richard Ladner, but there were many many important contributions from a great many other people.

A few presentations stood out. The keynote speaker, John Gardner, provided an inspirational story of how his life as a physicist changed after blindness as an adult. He built a number of tools to help him in his equation-rich highly-visual profession. More recently, he started a company, ViewPlus, that markets Braille printers, tactile and audio software, and a graphing calculator. Chloe Fan presented a paper on technologies (e.g., FitBit) that encourage physical activity in older adults. Her presentation was highly visual and very engaging, leading to many questions. Shari Trewin’s paper explored search by older adults through a series of experiments. She did a great job presenting—and especially answering questions—on search strategies, click times, reading approaches, and lots more. And David Flatla provided a highly entertaining presentation on ways to simulate personalized color vision deficiency, leveraging his own experiences.

So who should go to this conference? Lots of regulars whose primary interest is assistive technologies. But I would guess that the primary interest of half (or more) of the attendees is in something other than assistive technologies—they were applying their expertise in some other field to accessibility problems. It’s wonderful that this community is able to establish an open and inclusive environment that maintains a core set of regulars while welcoming other contributions. I’m hopeful that they will continue these effort as interest in the area grows.