Opinion - First person

Dr John Gill, chief scientist, RNIB and Mark Langdon, control editor, offer their views on current issues.

If you ask me

Design for all

Engineers and designers responsible for the user interfaces on new products have an enormous array of techniques and technologies at their disposal. These days they have the option of using not just tried and trusted methods involving push-buttons, dials and levers, but also much newer approaches such as touch-screens and voice-response systems. But whatever the product - whether it is a domestic appliance or a public utility - there is a category of user whom it is all too easy to forget, but whose needs should never be overlooked.

That is all the people with an impairment to one of their senses, abilities or faculties. These include, but are not confined to, the blind and partially sighted, the deaf and hard of hearing, individuals with limited mobility or dexterity and people with learning disabilities.

There are rather more of these people about than you might think when those with relatively mild but still troublesome forms of disability are taken into account. In the UK though just 0.4 per cent of people use a wheelchair, 12 times as many cannot walk unaided. Similarly, while only 0.1 per cent of people are deaf, six per cent are hard of hearing and while 0.4 per cent of people are blind another 1.5 per cent have extremely restricted 'low' vision.

Those figures underscore why the design of appropriate information and communication technology systems is important as a social obligation and why those responsible for them need to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities.

Ironically, advances in technology can aggravate and not ameliorate the situation. Electronic displays and touch-screens, for example, can be very difficult for people with low vision or poor manual dexterity. But other, rather harder-headed, factors are involved as well. People with disabilities are still, after all, consumers, and products designed to suit their needs as well as those of completely able-bodied people will have a bigger potential market. In addition, 'designing in' any capability to a product right from the start is always cheaper than retrofitting it at a later date.

This is a point on which enlightened product design should be appropriately proactive. Moreover, much of the information designers of ICT systems need to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including older people, is easily available at a comprehensive website www.tiresias.org that has been compiled by the scientific research unit of the Royal National Institute of Blind people. The site provides detailed information on four key issues: user groups - the type of people and disabilities that designers should consider; application areas - the everyday situations in which accessibility can be problematical; the technologies that can help provide solutions; and related issues such as international standards that contain relevant information.

There is no charge for accessing the website, which is one of the most comprehensive resources of its type currently available. Nor is there much excuse for not doing so. Effective product design should anticipate future requirements as well as satisfy immediate demand and numerous factors - not least changing attitudes, the prospect of further legislative provision and the demographic imperative of a 'greying' population - all mean that the importance of design for people with disabilities can only increase.

Dr John Gill, chief scientist, RNIB

Green boost for Formula One

Formula one is going 'green'. No it's not a joke - but it must be taken with a pinch of salt as while the cars will be running a KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) from next year, the Red Bull team uses 55 articulated trucks to get its hospitality suite and equipment to European Grand Prix. Not exactly environmentally friendly!

Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull Racing was giving the IET Lord Austin Lecture in London earlier this month when he explained to the audience that he thought next year would be a particularly challenging year in F1.

He also believes that this year will also see some interesting races if it rains because of the loss of engine braking. However, the 2009 car will be radically different from the current breed of F1 racers, particularly when it comes to the aero package. Banned will be all the extra little winglets to produce cleaner airflow over the cars in an effort to make it easier to overtake.

The biggest change is likely to come from KERS, which will recover as much energy as it can at a maximum rate of 60kW during braking events and deliver up to 400KJ in one single lap at a maximum rate of 60kW. All devices are allowed, provided they satisfy FIA safety standards.

Drivers are likely to press the boost button at the beginning of the straight to give them greater straight-line speed in the fastest part of the track. However, drivers will also be able to press the boost button to get past other cars on other parts of the track.

While this could make exciting racing, Horner believes that the gap between the top teams and the rest is likely to widen next year. The big teams, he says, will adapt more quickly to change because of the larger amount of money they can throw at a problem.

To put this into perspective:

A Formula 1 vehicle will never race twice in the same configuration; every car is a prototype. Horner says that one of the biggest challenges is getting a component from the drawing board to the car. The team will test about 150 components on its car at the next test in Barcelona and he hopes that at least half of these will be able to be signed off.

He highlights the problem that Red Bull had with its gearbox last year, which is the most expensive component on a F1 car. Last season the team struggled to get one race out of the gearbox and this year it has to last at least four races, or the team incurs a penalty.

The virtual world is certainly something that is making testing easier and Horner admits that the Red Bull team is committed to CFD with most of the front of its cars designed with it.

Once a lap is completed at a circuit, the data can be transmitted back to the factory where they have a car simulating the laps throughout a grand prix, so they can look for any problems that they might encounter during a race.

While the team hasn't got off to a brilliant start this year Horner is hoping that the team will be able to find a couple of tenths more speed to put Red Bull at the front of the pack chasing McLaren and Ferrari.

Mark Langdon, Control editor

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