LAMA – for the deaf or Clapham Junction?

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Earlier this year a profoundly deaf employee, at IBM UK Hursley Labs, was worried because he could not hear the fire alarms. IBM had installed a flashing light near his desk but this was no use when he was in other parts of the campus.

Hursley’s mission includes innovation, mobile and messaging so it was not long before a prototype solution was built. The fire alarm system was modified so that it sent an SMS message to his mobile phone. The phone vibrates, he reads the message, replies to confirm that he has received the message and takes the appropriate action. To be effective it had to be a little more sophisticated, the main requirement is that the system should recognise when he is on campus, he really did not want to get an SMS in the middle of the night on a trip to New York to tell him that there was a practice drill in Hursley! To make the system more useful and extendable the solution included the ability to subscribe to different types of messages (fire alarms and public address announcements for example).

Four students further developed the prototype as part of the company’s Extreme Blue research programme and it is now called Location Aware Messaging for Accessibility (LAMA).

Having proved the technology it was obvious that the solution had a much wider potential market than a profoundly deaf employee in Hursley. A LAMA-enabled train station would enable a deaf traveller to receive the public address announcements as text, so they would know about delays or platform changes. It could also provide more specific messages such as ‘your next train to Winchester will leave from platform 9 at 10:15’.

Having changed at Clapham Junction (the busiest and most complex station in the UK) on my way to Hursley I would have greatly appreciated a similar message even though I am not hard of hearing, or in any significant way disabled. My ideal solution would have been that having planned the route on the Internet I would have downloaded it to my LAMA phone and when I arrived at Clapham my phone would have alerted the station LAMA system of my requirements and responded with directions to the fastest train to Winchester. Vision impaired travellers could also benefit from this solution if the messages were sent as audio. The message could include directions between the platforms and an immediate message when arriving at the entrance to platform 9.

It becomes obvious that there could be benefits in LAMA-enabling very nearly any public facility, train stations, bus stations, airports, shopping centres, hospitals, museums etc. It is also obvious that besides improving accessibility for people with disabilities it also increases the usability of a site for any user.

This widening of the market is really essential to make the infrastructure economically viable. Some organisations may install LAMA because it is the socially responsible thing to do but most will consider it if it improves the experience of the majority of their clients.

Thus LAMA is an example of a solution built to meet a specific accessibility requirement that turns into a new general-purpose solution. This suggests that the ICT and assistive technology industries should be looking at specialist solutions and seeing how they could be generalised to the benefit of the original users and the broader community.

May I suggest as a small step in that direction IBM keeps the acronym but changes the meaning to Location Aware Messaging for All.