Sun, Consortium to Drive Tech Accessibility Project

Sun Microsystems is involved with a European Commission-funded effort to help improve disabled individuals' ability to use mobile devices, computers and rich Internet applications (RIAs), the company said Thursday.

About 20 other companies and groups from Europe and Canada are part of the consortium behind the AEGIS Project, which is backed by a grant from the Commission, along with matching contributions from members, for a total of €12.6 million (US$18 million) in funding.

AEGIS stands for "open Accessibility Everywhere: Groundwork, Infrastructure, Standards." It will employ open-source technologies "wherever possible," according to Sun.

Other members of the group include the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre of the University of Toronto, AOL, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the University of Cambridge, the European Platform for Rehabilitation and the Vodafone Spain Foundation.

AEGIS' planned areas of focus for the desktop include an open-source framework for future magnification-based assistive technologies, according to Peter Korn, accessibility architect at Sun and technical manager of the AEGIS project.

"Fundamentally, we are looking to take advantage of advances in video hardware. What a cheap video card can do these days is really impressive," he said in an interview Thursday.

Technologies for magnifying parts of a video screen are available now but need to become more powerful and flexible, Korn said. For example, a spreadsheet user may want both a particularly important cell as well as the formula bar magnified. "Magnifiers today generally don't magnify multiple regions simultaneously," he said.

Meanwhile, RIAs, which can span the Web and desktop, make the accessibility challenge more complicated, Korn recently wrote in a blog post.

That's because along with the three typical components involved in accessibility on the desktop -- an application, an operating system and the particular "assistive technologies" being used -- RIAs also introduce a browser to the equation.

In addition, there is much work to be done in regard to mobile accessibility, Korn wrote: "What assistive technologies exist for mobile are bolt-on, reverse-engineered, and ultimately unsatisfying solutions with limited ability to work with downloaded/3rd party applications - the very place where mobile device capabilities are most rapidly expanding."

AEGIS' focus on open-source components will ensure the broadest possible distribution of its resulting work, and the cheaper it is to develop accessible products, the more likely programmers and companies will do so, according to Korn.

This will in turn help to greatly lower the cost of accessible technology for end-users, he added.

The AEGIS initiative will follow open-source desktop accessibility efforts like the GNOME Accessibility Project and the OpenOffice.org Accessibility Project.

Microsoft also has developed a variety of accessibility features for its products.

Sun doesn't want to compete with other vendors around accessibility, said Korn, who described it as "a common good. ... If we do this open-source, we can collaborate on thoughtful solutions."

While not everything done through AEGIS will have an open-source license, the vast majority will, according to Korn.

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