Distinguished Alumni

Distinguished Alumnus Shaun Kane's career took a surprising turn

Monday, September 26, 2016

Shaun Kane didn’t expect to devote his career to studying accessible technology for people with disabilities.   

“I’m a person with a disability who works in technology and disability,” he said. “I have to say that I never expected that I would be doing that. If you asked me as a teenager whether I would ever be working in this area, I would have said 'no way.'”

Now, Kane, who earned his Ph.D. at the UW Information School in 2011, is well-established in the field and he’s the iSchool’s Distinguished Alumnus for 2016.

Kane’s interest in accessible design was first sparked while working on his master’s in Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts. At a symposium, he saw several designs for low-tech toys to help a child with multiple disabilities. Kane had been reading about design a lot, and he was taken by the challenge of designing something for people with different abilities.

“I saw that this was not just a place to do good, but that there were really exciting design challenges there,” he said.

In 2005, when he came to the iSchool, he found a way to merge his skills in computer science and his fascination with accessible design.

At the end of Kane’s first year at the iSchool, Jacob Wobbrock joined the faculty. Kane’s doctoral adviser had just left, leaving Kane in transition.

“That was lucky for me,” Wobbrock said. “Our interests were both aligned around working on technology for people with disabilities.”

Wobbrock and Kane collaborated on a number of projects as Kane worked on his Ph.D. Part of their focus was on Ability-Based Design, a concept that Wobbrock pioneered with Kane’s help. The idea is to make systems that adapt to the user, rather than forcing the user to adapt. That concept is something Kane still uses in his work.

 “I have nothing but positive things to say about my time working with Jake,” Kane said. “I think he was a great mentor. He really spent a lot of time with me and gave me the freedom to explore ideas I was interested in, but was supportive in helping me refine and polish the work.”

One of the projects they collaborated on, which turned out to have a big impact, focused on touch user interfaces for people who were blind or visually impaired.

Around that time, the iPhone was becoming really big, Kane said.

“That device was clearly just not accessible to someone who was visually impaired,” he said. “At the time, the thought was that touchscreens just weren’t going to be something that was accessible.”

Kane and Wobbrock didn’t accept that assumption. They began working on ways to make touchscreen devices more accessible for someone who was blind.

Later, Apple integrated an extremely similar design into its devices. Wobbrock said he’s confident that their work had a major impact on Apple’s VoiceOver technology, which is on a billion devices around the world.

After Kane completed his Ph.D., he took a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at UMBC in Maryland. He now is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, in the Department of Computer Science. He also directs the Superhuman Computing Lab.

Recently, Kane spent time as a visiting researcher at Microsoft, which is working on ways to help people with ALS, including using eye trackers to interact with technology. It’s useful for ALS patients because eye movement usually is not affected until late in the disease. Kane is working on ways to improve communication for people using such tools.

“One of the challenges of communicating using these types of systems is, first of all, they are very slow,” Kane said. “Also, when you’re using synthesized speech, it can affect your ability to express yourself, to express sarcasm, to express emotions, in your speech.”

That work has the potential to help anyone who uses technology to communicate, he said.

Another area Kane is working on focuses on collaboration, which can be challenging for a person who uses specialized equipment.  

Specifically, Kane said that blind people are often excluded from informal collaboration because the technical challenges make it easier to simply work alone. But collaboration is important in the workplace and in education. Over the last couple years, with support from the National Science Foundation, he was able to interview people who were visually impaired and lived and worked with sighted people. His next step is to look at how to design tools to allow more equitable collaboration. He just received a grant from the NSF to pursue that work.

Kane is fascinated with the increase in do-it-yourself assistive technology, including 3-D printing. He’s spent the past several years looking at how people use the internet to share designs they’ve created for assistive devices. He’d like to understand what problems they’re encountering, and then design tools to make the process easier.

“This Maker Movement and DIY Movement is really exciting in terms of changing the way we think about where technology comes from and how technology gets customized for people who need it,” he said.

Kane maintains his ties to the iSchool. He returned in June as the keynote speaker at Convocation, and he assisted on the recent Smart Touch project with Martez Mott, a Ph.D. student at the iSchool, and Wobbrock. Smart Touch worked to create touchscreens that could respond to a wide range of gestures for people who don’t have the manual dexterity or strength to precisely touch a screen with a single finger. The paper on Smart Touch won a 2016 Best Paper Award at CHI, the most prestigious annual conference on human-computer interaction.

Mott collaborated with Kane on the project, including on how to set up research methods that worked within the abilities of the users.

“Shaun is really good at thinking more broadly about bigger pictures,” Mott said. “He was really good at broadening my view and looking at it holistically rather than looking at it as an individual part. He was also just a really good collaborator.”

Wobbrock agreed with that sentiment, and said that Kane’s quick, innovative brain makes him a talented researcher.  

“He’s also just a great person,” Wobbrock said of Kane. “He’s kind, he’s compassionate, he’s patient and he’s a good person. Any adviser would be lucky to have a student like him and now a colleague like him. I consider him to be one of the highlights of my career.”