Saturday at SXSW Interactive

The SXSW Interactive Conference got underway in Austin, Texas today. I was on hand for a few of the events.

Brenda Laurel, the founder of Purple Moon and now Chair of the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design gave the opening address. She’s the editor of a new book called Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. This is one smart woman. In fact, she is so smart that I’m not at all sure I was able to make every intellectual leap along with her as she compared the evolution of media and technology with the evolution of cells and planetary structures. She says we have reached a point of creating a new type of social topology with technology that creates media that acts as if it is alive. For example, Web pages that change according to our intentions or our interests. She said that media has moved far beyond being “the message” and has become both transformation and transpersonal in terms of human environments.

Looking through the program, the main themes used to organize the various panels and workshops appear to be accessibility, blogging and the democratization of the Web, and the Web as both community and activist tool.

I went to two of the accessibility sessions. The first was moderated by Sharron Rush of Knowbility and featured Wendy Chisholm of the W3C, Dr. John Slatin of the University of Texas and Jeffrey Veen of Adaptive Path. Chisholm said that the W3C recently issued new working drafts for Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) and urged participants to get involved in the development of these guidelines by offering comments and help in refining the working drafts into recommendations. Dr. Slatin talked about multimedia accessibility. He mentioned captioning, which most people know about, but also talked about audio description. Audio description is an audio track that is added to a multimedia presentation when something is happening that a blind user would be unable to interpret from the sound, such as a scene in a movie where action is taking place but there is no dialog. Some theaters now provide wireless listening devices that give the user access to the audio description during the movie. Veen made the point that good design is accessible design and that a strong business case for accessible design has begun making headway with corporate sites.

The second accessibility session I attended featured Jim Allan of the Texas School for the Blind, Andrea Hamblin of St. Edwards University in Austin, James Craig of Knowbility and Rob Sartin of Knowbility. Andrea Hamblin described the change process that St. Edwards is using to bring their Web site into accessibility. She had a number of excellent suggestions for bringing about institutional change and there was a lot of interest from the audience in her information. Allan said that the tools that disabled users work with get information that is filtered by the knowledge of the developer, the accessibility functions of the development tool, the way the browser interprets standards, and finally the accessible device or screen reader. He said that all these factors have a cumulative effect on the experience disabled users have with Web pages. Sartin pointed out that simple things such as always referring to a link with the same link text and/or title on every page make navigation much easier.

I saw Eric Meyer and Molly Holzschlag chatting in the hallway but didn’t talk to them. (The curse of the introverted – my talkative teacher persona only comes out when I’m trapped in the front of a classroom). However, I hear that Eric Meyer has a new edition of Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide ready for release. I’ll bet this is going to be another must-have book and will try to review it here.

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