Maybe you’ve heard of the cloud. Depending on who you ask the cloud is the secret to making your business more efficient, the future of computing, a simple revisit to the client-server architectures of the past, or the dangerous aggregation of your data in the hands of a third party. Beyond the hype, the cloud has the potential to dramatically improve the availability of access technology (AT); research is forging the path to putting our AT in the clouds.
I’ll eventually get to why and how, but first things first: what is the cloud? At a first cut, the cloud is everything on, in or around the Internet that is vital for its operation but that users don’t need to worry about most of the time. The cloud includes the cables, routers, servers, and other infrastructure that brought this article to you – the details of how all of this works are incredibly interesting, but as a reader you care most that your laptop can connect to Yahoo! and bring down blog posts for you to read. People developing high-level Internet services long ago started abstracting away the innards of the Internet as “the cloud” (Figure 1).
But that’s all a bit nebulous, and so I’m going to cheat a little and take a definition from Wikipedia:
“Cloud computing is Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software, and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like the electricity grid.”
Cloud Computing- Wikipedia
The potential advantages of the cloud come about because applications and services are no longer tied to particular devices – with the heavy lifting and logic of applications centralized, computing can be made more efficient. Content can be delivered quickly, cheaply and easily to diverse devices, and each device, free of the complexities of storing and computing information, can be a thin client tasked with creating an optimal user experience utilizing the specific features of the device. As our data and applications have broken free from particular devices, comments like “that email’s on my other computer” have become anachronisms – my email, document, photos, movies, and friends are suddenly accessible from anything with a web browser.
Even as so much of our computing has taken on a life outside of a particular device, access technology has generally remained tied to one computer, one mobile phone, or one PDA. Comments like “this computer doesn’t have my screen reader on it” or “the software isn’t configured like mine at home” are all too common. There are some technical reasons for why AT has been slower to move to the cloud – AT has traditionally been closely wed to the platform on which it’s running and tends to involve diverse modalities that currently require low-level access to system resources to produce and interpret. The result is that it is difficult to get AT to run across different platforms and without full permissions on the device.
But, imagine if AT was in the cloud– anyone could walk or roll up to any web-connected device and immediately access a computing environment that best optimizes the capabilities of the device for their abilities. Are you most effective at using the computer with magnified text, reversed color contrast, and a speech interface? If AT was in the cloud, my laptop or the computer in the hotel business center would present this familiar and useful interface, just like your home computer.
This dream is slowly becoming a reality, but still requires substantial research and innovation. I believe work in the following general areas to be most important for achieving cloud-based AT:
- access technology that can run from any web browser in a device- and platform-independent way, even on locked-down public terminals;
- robust profiles that enable anyone to identify to devices how they should adapt themselves while maintaining users’ privacy and anonymity;
- interfaces that automatically and dynamically adapt to diverse users, abilities and contexts; and
- convenient tools or methods for creating descriptive profiles of diverse (and changing) users
Progress is already being made, and those interested in this area might want to check out the following related links:
- Raising the Floor – a broad initiative aimed at ensuring everyone has access to the Internet, which includes efforts in cloud-based AT.
- WebAnywhere – a web application that I created to bring speech-enabled web access to anyone from any computer without installing software.
- AccessibilityIsARight – not cloud-based AT per se, but a well-done (and free) effort at delivering AT to a local computer using a cloud-based accessible web interface
Until next time, keep your head (and your AT) in the cloud.