gFundamental Research on Communication Function
of the Elderly and Persons with Disabilitiesh


1. Introduction

In this project, we systematically and comprehensively analyze cognitive, sensory, physical, and behavioral characteristics of the elderly and persons with disabilities that are essential in the development of user interfaces for gbarrier-freeh communication equipment.

Many people may be temporarily handicapped due to a disease or an accident. The phrase gdigital divideh is used now to indicate that many persons including the elderly and disabled are disadvantaged because they cannot fully utilize digital equipment.

Under these circumstances, the documentation of guidelines, establishment of standards, and introduction of laws on designing barrier-free communication equipment among others are now actively pursued both domestically and overseas. Unfortunately, much information required to develop this equipment, such as information about cognitive, sensory, sensory, and behavioral characteristics of disabled and aged persons has not been obtained thus far. Therefore, the systematic advancement of basic research in this area is urgently required.

2. Barrier-free communication equipment

The examination of a scene showing the use of communication equipment reveals that there are three major gparticipants,h namely, a person using the equipment, a piece of equipment used by the person and a human interface that mediates the interaction between the equipment and the person. Persons temporarily disabled due to injuries or illnesses and permanently disabled and elderly persons have some limited functions and abilities, such as an impairment of eyes, ears, or limbs, or limited mental functions and abilities. Thus, they must depend on their remaining available functions. (Hereafter, we designate each of the various inputs and outputs such as audiovisual and tactile sensations, and operations to/from humans as gchannelsh.) As a result, disabled persons are forced to deal with information that has a structure that has been converted and is not suitable for their remaining functions to handle. Therefore, mental workload level increases in these individuals.

Accordingly, it is first necessary to clarify the characteristics of channels, such as those in audiovisual systems, and the structure and properties of information used in these channels, and to elucidate an information structure that poses only small increases in mental workload level on users. Then, on the basis of @information thus obtained, we must construct a human interface and convert and process input and output information to/from human interfaces appropriately, so that the interface itself does not create mental workload.

For example, for severely visually disabled persons, information displayed on a screen must be converted to audio information (voice) or Braille. Because information shown on a display is stationary, a sighted person can read the information, even including positional relationships, on the screen easily without memorizing the information. However, audio and Braille information is not stationary; it is volatile. When the information on the screen is converted into volatile information, the two-dimensional information relationship on the screen is lost and becomes one-dimensional with respect to time. Therefore, visually disabled persons must memorize the content in audio and Braille information, which is volatile and one-dimensional. Furthermore, they must comprehend the mutual relationship among pieces of information in real time and measure it. That is, they are exposed to a high level of mental workload. Accordingly, we need to analyze the structure of audio information that makes real-time understanding easy, and examine and realize methods of expression that make the understanding of mutual relationships among complicated pieces of information easier.

In the case of physically disabled persons, they may have difficulties in accurately controlling physical movements; thus they are forced to control equipment using remaining specific motor functions.@It is understandable that their mental workload level is enormous. Therefore, it is important to analyze the actual levels of mental and physical workload and cognitive workload associated with various levels of disabilities. Furthermore, on the basis of this study, it is important to develop structures and functions of input equipment that can minimize mental workload, and algorithms that require a small number of input strokes, that are easy to understand, and that result in a small number of operational mistakes.

The major feature of this project is to clarify the properties of the sensory, cognitive, physiological, physical, and functions of behavior of humans towards the equipment and the characteristics of information processed by these functions by focusing on mental workload. We then obtain ideas for the construction of the basis of human support technology, which leads to the minimization of mental workload.

Perceptual functions include visual, audiovisual, tactile, and muscular sensations; it is necessary to clarify the characteristics of easy-to-sense structures for media that accommodate remnant sensations that can be used as alternatives, and media that accommodate deteriorated sensations caused by disabled persons. In the area of cognitive functions, it is important to clarify the functions and conditions that enable real-time understanding of linguistic information, related linguistic information, and image information. In the area of physiological and physical functions, the issues to be clarified are the motor functions required for the operation of equipment. As for basic research that focuses on how disabled persons feel, what they think, how they act and how they behave towards the equipment, the issues to be clarified include habits and limitations when using support equipment.

When functional limitations develop due to limitations of physical function or aging, it is necessary to compensate once normal functions with remaining functions. However, the characteristics of the remaining functions may be different from those of the original function; mental workload level increase due to the limitation of various gcapacities of resources engaged, that is, the ability to focush when people try to use the remaining functions.

Unfortunately, the exceptional functions of human beings have not been fully clarified. In the development of support equipment to minimize mental workload, it is necessary to clarify the nature and properties of these unclarified functions and use the results obtained in the development of support equipment. Once these have been clarified, processing, which matches different levels of reduced sensation and physical function of persons with disabilities, can be carried out in the human interface, and information processing, which accommodates different cognitive levels of individuals, will be carried out primarily in the main body of the equipment.

3. Organization of the project and activities

The members participating in this project are 42 researchers, six evaluators, and research collaborators from 17 universities, five institutions, and two private companies. At this moment, no person with experience with mentally handicapped persons, who are important subjects in this study, is included.

E Hearing disability

We are currently studying various aspects of hearing disability by focusing on sign language, which is a representative communication method for persons with hearing disability. Research themes in this area are the clarification of conditions for the image transmission of sign language based on psychological evaluation, computer graphics for sign language, automatic recognition of sign language by machines, development of a notation method for describing sign language, and the construction of a sign language database.@@In these research areas, we are currently carrying out studies focusing on the fact that sign language is a volatile medium similar to speech; thus, we are using research approaches adopted in the speech area, which are well developed as media, and introducing research results obtained in the speech area, which are the state of the art.

E Visual disability

In this area, we study Braille, voice communication, and finger Braille, all of which transmit linguistic information. We also capture Braille patterns, colors, and information obtained from individuals with poor vision. In the former case, totally blind people cannot gain information through vision; they must depend on volatile information such as hearing and tactile sensations. As a result, problems such as increases in mental workload level and accompanying psychological burdens in real-time communication arise. Mental workload is related to dealing with dynamically changing information with time, and psychological burdens are related to stationary information; the issues involved in these types of information processing are expected to be different in terms of sensations and cognition. Studies are being carried out focusing on these two aspects.@In addition, we are analyzing characteristics of finger Braille for deaf-blind persons, that is, multiply handicapped people, and developing application systems that make use of finger Braille.

E Physical disability

For physically disabled persons, the main issues are the decrease in mental workload level associated with entering information into personal computers. To obtain basic data for analyzing the effect of keyboard operation on the mental workload for persons with physical disability, such as patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), we are compiling data on button-pressing force. In addition, we are developing a design for a soft keyboard, which requires a small number of key strokes and generates only few operational errors for persons with disabilities and who are capable of operating a one-switch input system. We began systematically developing a map by which physically disabled persons can select a piece of inputting equipment that poses only a small mental workload on the basis of the type and level of physical disability. Furthermore, we will develop an electromyograph, which accurately detects the myoelectricity of remaining muscles and develop an input interface that poses only a small mental workload.

E Elderly persons

In studies of these issues carried out by other groups, disabilities are viewed as static conditions, and researchers adopted an approach to establishing support technology development guidelines by analyzing the characteristics of media, information, and physical functions of humans that are used as measures for solving problems faced by handicapped people. However, in this study, phenomena such as an increase in mental workload level arising from diminishing abilities to focus caused by aging are studied from various perspectives. We aim to construct a comprehensive database of findings on cognition by elderly persons, which can serve as a foundation for the development of easy-to-use equipment for the elderly.

4. Conclusions

In this study, we attempt to organize a research community in which researchers support basic research on equipment development to improve the information environment of the elderly and persons with disabilities. The project still covers limited areas. Some coordination with people working in information science, mainly with those in the field of media such as speech and imaging sciences, has been realized; however, the area, in particular, for intellectual disability has not been covered thus far. Establishing coordination with researchers in important fields such as physiology, which covers brain science and the study of physical functions, and sociology will be an important future task.

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