Jacob Wobbrock awarded $500K NSF grant to design more accessible mobile devices

What if your smart phone was smarter?

A new $500K grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will enable UW iSchool Professor Jacob O. Wobbrock and UW CSE and EE Professor Shwetak Patel to examine how various situations impair people’s abilities to use mobile computing devices. The researchers will develop sensors, algorithms, and interface designs to enable devices to adapt to off-desktop situations and thereby help users overcome what are called “situational impairments.”   

“As computing has moved off the desktop, the typical computer user of today may be on the move, using a small handheld device, surrounded by noise and cars, being rained upon, wearing gloves or navigating uneven terrain,” says Wobbrock. 

“All of these environments cause ‘situational impairments’ that affect people’s abilities to use computers and are unlike anything computer users ever had to endure before—and yet our computers are completely oblivious to the circumstances in which they are being used. Computer accessibility is therefore no longer a notion suited only to people with disabilities; computer accessibility is for everyone. Nobody’s abilities go unaffected when using mobile computing devices in uncontrolled environments.” 

Using ability-based design theory, Wobbrock and Patel will study three areas that typically impact computer use: environmental factors including the effects of rain and light; physical aspects of the user such as detecting whether the person is wearing gloves or walking; and attention-based factors including using mobile devices to detect when someone is distracted or perhaps driving. 

At the conclusion of the study, Wobbrock and Patel expect to have developed new sensing technologies and systems that make devices smarter, plus new user interfaces to make interaction with computers in off-desktop situation more usable, useful, and successful. 

It is planned that the research will also be beneficial to people who have impaired motor or sensory skills, as the techniques developed for aiding “situational impairments” may crossover to aiding physical impairments as well. Wobbrock believes everyone can benefit as computer manufacturers design better mobile computing experiences based on the kind of work pursued here. 

About the researchers

Jacob O. Wobbrock, the principal investigator on the project, is an expert is in mobile user interfaces, input and interaction techniques, and accessible computing. This is Wobbrock’s fourth major NSF grant in his six years at the Information School. One of the grants, Advancing Accessible Computing with Tools for Ability-Based Design (2010), was an NSF CAREER Award. Shwetak Patel’s expertise is in ubiquitous and mobile computing, sensors, and machine learning. Among myriad other awards, he won the 2011 MacArthur ‘Genius” Award from the MacArthur Foundation. Both professors are active members of the DUB Group, the grassroots HCI & Design consortium on the University of Washington campus. 

To learn more about the research, contact Jacob O. Wobbrock at wobbrock@uw.edu.