Microsoft researches user interface for the illiterate

Creating smarter iconic images for different countries and cultures is a key challenge

Microsoft's research arm is working on technology that would enable its engineers to build a user interface for the illiterate.

Scientists in Microsoft Research's Bangalore, India, research lab have been working on the project since 2005, according to P. Anandan, the facility's managing director. The scientists are building prototypes of the user interface (UI) now but Microsoft has no immediate plans for working it into a product, Anandan said.

"Many people in the world - about 50 per cent in India - cannot read and write," Anandan told Computerworld. "For them, a textual interface where they have to read and write just is not useful. You can show a lot more in a picture."

Anandan and his team from the Bangalore lab were in Washington this week for Microsoft's seventh annual TechFest gathering. They were among many of Microsoft's 800 PhD-level researchers from around the world who attended the event to show off projects they working on.

On Tuesday, the scientists gave the press and Microsoft research partners a glimpse of their work, and then rolled out a more comprehensive showcase on Wednesday and Thursday for Microsoft's own employees.

Anandan said part of the challenge in developing the new interface is to overcome the barrier of using reading and writing to interact with the computer. What it largely comes down to is coming up with better icons, he added.

Another problem lies in the fact that different countries, different cultures and even people from different towns respond differently to iconic images. Anandan explained that the average image used in the United States for a home would look like two sides of a home and a slanted roof. However, someone looking for housekeeping work in India might see that icon and assume that it was a hut and not a nice home. In India, the icon for a home would have to represent a two-story dwelling, he said.

"One part of this work is not so much about the icons but about the vocabulary a community speaks," he added. "Every iconic interface depends on the application you're creating it for and the community you're focusing on. You have to think of language, the country and the job people do."

Creating a user interface for people who are illiterate, however, can also help in the effort to improve more traditional interfaces, as literate people can also benefit from richer and more meaningful icons, noted Anandan.

"There's a certain amount of vividness that you get through images and sound that you don't get through text," he added.

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