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IBM hopes to make mobile devices more accessible

Big Blue is teaming up with two universities to explore ways to make smartphones and mobile devices more accessible to people who have disabilities or lack literacy.

IBM is embarking on a research project to design mobile gadgets that are easier to use for people who have disabilities or aren't fully literate.

As part of the project, announced Wednesday, Big Blue will collaborate with India's National Institute of Design and the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

The goal is to develop a common interface for mobile devices that will make them easier to use. As digital information becomes more vital, IBM said, it believes the Internet needs to be more accessible to a wider range of people, including those who are illiterate, blind, deaf, and elderly, and those in developing countries.

"Through this collaborative research initiative, we will uncover real information accessibility requirements and issues that the elderly and people in developing economies are facing today," Chieko Asakawa, an IBM Fellow and chief technology officer of IBM's accessibility research, said in a statement. "By focusing on mobile devices, which have a tremendous potential to empower them, we believe the findings will help us offer affordable services to a large population, who are still deprived of access to key information sources."

Any software created by IBM Research and the universities will be released as open source, freely available for governments and businesses to use, said IBM. Big Blue's partnership is part of its Open Collaborative Research program, which teams up the company with universities to develop new and open technologies. The Tokyo center is the first university-based research institute in Japan to join the program, while the National Institute of Design is the second university in India to do so.

IBM researchers in Tokyo and a team from the research center there will focus on making mobile technology easier for Japan's growing elderly population. In India, IBM Research and the design institute will look at ways to help that country's non- and semi-literate population find information through mobile devices.

"By bringing IBM's deep knowledge in mobile web and [the Indian institute's] interface design and ethnological expertise, this initiative is aimed to develop inclusive technologies and help the underprivileged improve their lives," Dr. Jignesh Khakhar of the National Institute of Design said in a statement.

The new research project is just the latest effort by IBM to try to bring technology to people who could be considered outside the mainstream. The company has been recognized in India for its "Spoken Web" technology, which lets people who are illiterate or have vision problems access the Internet by voice.