RESNA 26th International Annual Confence
The Demand-Pull Project on Communication Enhancement facilitates the introduction of new and innovative technology into the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) marketplace. The Stakeholders Forum is a critical step in this Project at which important unmet customer needs and feasible technology solutions to address these needs are identified. Forum participants include manufacturers, researchers, clinicians, consumers (primary and secondary), advocates, resource providers and technology producers whose knowledge and perspectives are critical to the transfer process. The Forum is an effective means by which to validate unmet market needs and establish "requirements" for technology solutions to address these needs.
Starting in October 2000, the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer (T2RERC) initiated the "Demand-Pull Project on Communication Enhancement." Project partners included the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Communication Enhancement (AAC-RERC) and the Southeast Region of the Federal Laboratory Consortium. In addition, Dr. Jeff Higginbotham and Dr. Sarah Blackstone were sub-contracted to provide input on current clinical practices, technical advisement and paper critiques.
Initial work included three consumer panels (one online with 25 consumers and two face-to-face with a total of 13 consumers), a series of expert interviews (with 16 experts including AAC researchers and manufacturers) and the development of a comprehensive industry profile. Based upon this work, four broad areas of technology need were selected for continued work: 1) output interfaces (e.g. text-to-speech synthesis, display technologies), 2) input technologies (e.g. interfaces providing improved AAC and computer access), 3) language processing (e.g. rate enhancement, context-based processing), and 4) wireless integration (e.g. access to and control of computers, environmental, and telecommunications technology). White papers, summarizing consumer needs, markets and a technology overview were written for each technology area.
The "Stakeholders Forum on Communication Enhancement," was held in Buffalo, New York on June 5th and 6th, 2001. Key Forum objectives included: 1) validating consumer needs, 2) identifying technology solutions to address these needs, 3) establishing that technology solutions are feasible, and 4) validating manufacturer interest in such solutions. Finally, it is a fifth objective to establish that the proposed technology solutions cannot be readily obtained or developed through means commonly available to manufacturers within the AT industry segment.
Following the Forum, problem statements are written outlining consumer needs, market opportunities and sought-after "technology solutions." Problem statements are then introduced to technology developers through a combination of passive dissemination, assisted dissemination, targeted solicitation and the Internet. (1) Technology proposals received from these developers are screened. For promising proposals, the T2RERC works with the developer to build and implement a transfer plan. Technology transfers are accomplished through a variety of mechanisms such as technology licensure, OEM agreements, distribution agreements, joint R&D agreements, etc. Following the initial transfer, the T2RERC continues working with the technology developer to establish new markets and increase market penetration. Refer to Bauer, 2002 and Lane 2000 for a general discussion on technology transfer. (1, 2)
In order to establish consumer need, technology solutions, technical feasibility and manufacturer interest, the Forum has balanced representation from each of the corresponding stakeholder groups - product end-users, researchers and clinicians, technology developers (e.g. high tech manufacturers) and AT manufacturers. A fifth group ("resource providers") is also represented (e.g. federal laboratory consortium, funding agencies, trade publications).
The Forum had 65 participants, nearly evenly apportioned among consumers, researchers, technology developers, manufacturers, and resource providers. Purposive sampling methods were employed to select 12 consumers with a sampling frame crossing functional abilities against experience with various communication technologies. End-users were recruited through advocacy groups, AAC-RERC referrals, online user groups and a database maintained by the Western New York Independent Living Project. Expert sampling was employed to select researchers and manufacturers with comprehensive knowledge across these same functional abilities and technologies. Technology developers were selected having potential "solutions" within the four technology areas. (3)
Prior to the Forum, participants received white papers, and a letter explaining their role in the Forum process, expected outcomes and benefits. The Forum conducted 8 focus groups (4 per day) with 12-20 participants per group covering the four technology areas - each participant attended two different technology groups. Group assignment established a balanced heterogeneous mix however participants attended groups reflecting their first or second interest. Each group session ran approximately three hours, typically with two breaks. Groups were scripted to ensure proper time management and moderated so that critical topics were not overlooked during discussion (through the use of probing questions). Groups were made fully accessible through structured moderation, use of care assistance and any other means identified by consumers (4).
High priority communication technology needs are outlined under their corresponding area (input interface, output interface, language processing and wireless integration). A complete listing and detailed analysis of Forum data and technology needs is available online (5).
Input technologies including speech recognition technology, gesture recognition technology, eye gaze technology, bio-signal technology, and multi-modal and multi-channel input capabilities are needed that provide accurate and efficient control of AAC systems. These technologies must serve the needs of persons with a wide range of physical, sensory and cognitive abilities across diverse environments and activities. All input devices should utilize a wireless link to the AAC system. Communication, literacy and all dependent activities are directly impacted by input performance.
Output interfaces including speech synthesis technology, automatic volume control, glare reduction and night viewing, wearable remote and dual displays, and directed sound output were identified as technology areas in need of improvement. Output technologies (speech synthesis, sound projection, adaptive volume control) are needed that are intelligible, personalized, `natural sounding' and that enhance communication privacy. Display technologies are needed that perform well in all lighting conditions and support comfortable and private communication at short range or remotely.
Language processing systems are needed in the areas of context based communication processing, customization/training, message creation/refinement, and storage/retrieval. AAC systems need advanced processing capabilities (context recognition, semantic editing, storage and retrieval of text) in order to improve the rate and quality of communication and literate composition achievable with an AAC system. Clinicians and educators need the ability to evaluate and monitor communication and literacy performance, modify system parameters, reference recognized educational and clinical models and easily customize device characteristics.
Improved wireless capabilities are needed in the areas of computer and Internet access, environmental controls, and cell phone capabilities. Persons using AAC systems need wireless access to and control of personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, entertainment technology, appliances and home security. Wireless integration will provide educational and vocational opportunities, and increase security, independence and social interaction.
The Forum and market research preceding the Forum (panels, interviews, industry profile) are used to validate consumer (market) need, identify (potential) technology solutions, establish technical feasibility for these solutions and confirm manufacturer interest. Determining these factors provides a strong argument for the introduction of new and improved products. It does not however imply that technology transfer is the preferred means for manufacturers to obtain the technology solutions underlying these products.
For sound business reasons, manufacturers develop technology solutions in the most cost effective and expeditious manner available to them including internal R&D, contracted R&D, company acquisition, joint R&D, technology licensure, R&D by original equipment manufacturers, etc. In general, technology transfer makes technology solutions (or capabilities to develop such solutions) available to the manufacturer by means "external" to those they normally employ. Technology transfer is the preferred strategy only if it is the most cost-effective and expeditious means by which a manufacturer can obtain a technology solution relative to all other means available. . The Demand Pull process therefore seeks to identify technology targets that include technologies that address high-priority consumer needs which are unlikely to be adopted by an AT industry through strategies other than technology transfer.
This is a publication of the RERC on Technology Transfer, funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the Department of Education under grant number H133E980024. Opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.
Dr. Stephen Bauer
616 Kimball Tower
Center for Assistive Technology
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14214-3079