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Aiming for Optimal Inclusivity

Aiming for Optimal Inclusivity

Behavioral psychologists agree that successful communication relies on much more than just words.

Behavioral psychologists agree that successful communication relies on much more than just words. In-person interactions generally involve eye contact, changes in vocal tones, nodding, gesticulation and all sorts of other body language. So when phone calls or texting are the only viable mode of communication, how can technology restore what’s lost in translation? And moreover, how can devices help the deaf – and other users with disabilities – convey information with ease?

On April 1 and 2, students and alumni involved with Brown/RISD STEAM and A Better World by Design tackled these and other fascinating questions during Inclusive Design, a two-day digital design workshop. Working with two design strategists from Microsoft, the group hunkered down at Brown’s Prince Laboratory to develop hypothetical devices meant to assist the hearing impaired.

For instance, Tim Duschenes 17 ID, Hae Bung Min 13 ID and Brown engineering student Sara Peletz presented EyeCon, a texting function that allows users to include digital “faces” that mirror their own emotional reactions in real time. The feature can be turned off whenever “social privacy” is needed.

“It would be so helpful for deaf users to have access to these types of emotional cues,” noted Microsoft’s Principal Design Strategist Margaret Price. “This type of technology would heighten everyone’s texting experience. Language is so much richer when we include nuance.”

Tim Rooney 16 ID and Adi Azulay MID 17 developed Tac-clip, a wearable tool that vibrates to get a person’s attention despite loud ambient noise from things like construction, traffic or shouting. The designers imagine that the technology will include artificial intelligence (AI) capable of learning its user’s voice.

On Thursday evening, Price and her colleague Kat Holmes, a principal designer at Microsoft, spoke to a full house in the Chace Center’s Metcalf Auditorium. The designers explained the importance of remembering the full spectrum of the population when developing cutting-edge products. Holmes explained that she learned this lesson while working with the team that made Microsoft Cortana, an AI assistant for smartphones.

“Our actions as designers have a profound impact on contemporary culture,” noted Holmes. “We have to remember universal qualities when dreaming up the next big product. If we can do this, we can develop life-changing devices that are accessible to everyone. And that’s the ultimate goal.”