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New Tools make 'Information Kiosks' more Accessible

Information kiosks -- those touch-screen machines that dispense everything from wedding-gift registrations to license-plate stickers -- epitomize how technology is simplifying daily life.

But simple does not always mean accessible. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Trace Research and Development Center is working to adapt this booming technology so it can be used by everyone, including the millions of people who have disabilities.

The center's software and hardware package called "E-Z Access" debuted late last month in a job information kiosk at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The kiosk, developed by the Minnesota firm Intuitive Solutions, provides an electronic version of the help-wanted ads in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, a Knight-Ridder newspaper.

Touch screen kiosk

Gregg C. Vanderheiden, professor of industrial engineering, with handicapped accessible touch screen info kiosk. (large image)

The Trace Center, which researches and develops techniques to make technology accessible, developed the new tools and teamed together with Intuitive Solutions. The Mall of America kiosk is the first in the nation with this kind of cross-disability assistive technology.

"Before this combination of techniques, we had no idea how to make touch-screen kiosks accessible to people with visual, hearing, physical or reading disabilities," says Gregg C. Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center and a professor of industrial engineering."But with emerging voice technologies and other techniques, it is possible to provide complete access without the need for any other assistive technology."

Vanderheiden says an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population has some form or combination of disabilities, from mild to severe, that might interfere with their use of these machines.

Features include a technique called "Talking Fingertip," which provides an audio description of the visuals as the person touches the screen. Several variations -- including on-screen keyboards. -- allow people who have difficulty reading, have low vision or are blind to use the screens. People who are hard of hearing or deaf can call up captions for any information presented by sound.

Incorporating these features into kiosks can be done by modifying its basic software; the hardware is already a part of most kiosks. Only a small, green diamond-shaped switch needs to be added, Vanderheiden says. Since these techniques need to be built into the machines, he says, industry partnerships are an important first step in making the technology more widely available.

Trace, now in its 25th year, has made great strides in getting disability-access features incorporated into major brands of personal computers and software, including Mac OS, UNIX and Windows 95. Its new efforts focus on "next-generation" technology, such as information kiosks and ATM machines, that have widespread use in education, employment and daily life.

Vanderheiden says more than 300,000 information kiosks exist across the country, many offering creative and time-saving services. Airports across the country are using information kiosks for travel and tourism advice. Many government agencies are using kiosks to dispense routine information. And in Nevada, there are even kiosks that will prepare people's divorce papers.

Bob Bro, president of Intuitive Solutions, said kiosk manufacturers and government agencies are eager to improve accessibility of these machines, and the Trace technology will help the widest possible range of people. "Information kiosks really reach beyond what the Internet provides because they don't assume a high degree of technical literacy in the user," Bro says. "They are simple enough to be used by the biggest possible group of people. This technology broadens that market even more."

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