Fooling the Eye

I’m intensely interested in all sorts of accessibility issues, including things that people don’t normally associate with accessibility, even though they are. For example, I was recently amused when I read Explained! Why People Can’t Agree on the Color of that Dress. Yes, the article is one of those sorts of optical illusion discussions that some people find fascinating, but many others don’t. However, it does point to something really interesting for everyone. How we perceive color depends on a lot of factors, not just the actual color. In this case, the factor is backlighting. It’s an interesting article because it points out that under the right conditions, we really can’t be sure that the color we’re seeing is the correct one.

The practical application of all this is that it’s important to understand that our perceptions of the world around us are often based on context. So, whether you’re trying to discover the color of a really wretched dress or that blotch on a piece of fruit, you need to consider the context of whatever you’re seeing. The ability to see color well could be trumped by a whole array of other factors, such as lighting or simply the time off day. Color perception can even be affect by state of mind or tiredness. In short, it isn’t absurd to think that your color vision will sometimes fail to produce the desired result.

The lesson on perception and the use of senses extends far beyond color vision. For example, people’s hearing is often fooled by environmental factors. The senses of taste and touch are equally susceptible to problems with environment or other factors that you might not consider worth thinking about. When something seems a bit too odd for serious consideration, perhaps your senses are simply being fooled. It’s an interesting and important element of the human condition to think about. Tell me about your favorite “Fool the Eye” experience at


An Experiment in Noise Pollution Reduction

I’ve been trying an experiment over the past year. It includes trying to reduce the amount of noise pollution I endure during the day. No, I haven’t buried myself in an anechoic chamber. What I have done is consciously reduced the noise around me, including the sound levels of all sorts of sources. As I’m able, I’m reducing the sound levels of my music and of the television (for example) or turning them off completely. What I’m finding is that the sound levels I listened to when I started sound absurdly loud to me now. I don’t have enough medical knowledge to know whether someone’s hearing can repair itself, but I do know that turning down the sound has forced me to pay attention better when I want to hear something. The difference in focus has had a profound effect.

Reducing sound levels has both health and monetary benefits. The health benefits, at the least, are improved hearing. The monetary benefit is that I find I’m using less electricity to produce sound that I didn’t really want to hear in the first place. In addition, because I’m able to focus on a task with all of my energy, I complete tasks faster and with fewer errors, which usually has a positive monetary impact (or, at least gives me more time to do something else). These are the effects that I thought I would achieve when I started my experiment and they have proven to be quite easy to justify. Most importantly, I now find that I can hear things that I would have missed in the past. For example, if my wife requires aid, I can actually hear her more often (she’s incredibly soft spoken).

I’m finding a few surprise changes as the result of my experiment. For one thing, my blood pressure is less on days where I have fewer noise sources to contend with (as much as 15 mmHg), which bodes well for my long term health. I’m also finding that I suffer fewer headaches and that I appear to have more energy. So far, I haven’t seen much difference in my heart rate, which is something I had expected given the other changes I’ve noted. I wish there were some way to quantify how much of this effect is due to sound reduction and how much is due to overall health improvement due to our self-sufficient lifestyle, but I have to think that the sound reduction has a significant effect.

There are a few negative effects to the sound reduction experiment. The first is that I find that I wake easier at night. Sounds that I didn’t notice before are quite obvious now. So, when an animal is killing a rabbit outside, I wake now, rather than sleep through it. The disruption of my sleep does have a negative health effect, but I think the consistent positive health benefits I’ve received outweigh this somewhat negative effect (given that I fall back to sleep quite easily). The second is that I sometimes find myself straining to hear a sound that isn’t there. This psychological effect will likely become less pronounced as time goes on, but for now, it causes some level of stress when it occurs, which is only occasionally.

I haven’t completely cut out sound sources. For most of us, the complete loss of sound sources isn’t obtainable, desired, wanted, or even needed. What I have done is made a conscious effort to reduce the loudness of sound sources when I can. For example, instead of listening to the television at the 35 level, I’ll listen at the 25 or 20 level instead. I’ve cut music sources down to half their previous levels and I turn the music off completely in the afternoon when I’m focused most on writing. I also use hearing protection now even if the sound source isn’t what most people would consider absurdly loud (when using the lawn mower, for example).

Noise pollution poses serious health risks to people today. It isn’t just annoying, it causes all sorts of health, environmental, and monetary problems. While I have always advocated the use of hearing protection when working around loud equipment (wood chippers, weed whacker, chainsaw, blower, circular saw, and so on), this is my first foray into reducing sound levels from all other sources. The effects have been pronounced and I’m now beginning to wonder just how far I can take this and still maintain quality of life. There is a balance to things, after all. Have you considered the effects of noise pollution in your life? What can you do to reduce it? Let me know your thoughts on noise pollution at


New Technique for Tracking Gestures

An interesting new technique is being explored for tracking gestures. This technique is of special interest to me because, at one time, I worked with SONAR in the Navy. At the time I worked with SONAR, it never occurred to me that the techniques I was using, would also have so many civilian applications. However, things like Doppler effect have had a huge affect on sciences such as predicting the weather. Now there is a new use of the Doppler effect in sensing gestures. When someone moves their hand in a specific way, a system can sense the hand movement and use it to perform a task. Right now the technique is more of an experiment than something that’s useful. The current technology can sense five gestures, but the inventor says that it will eventually be able to sense up to ten gestures. Personally, I think the technology will become refined enough to do a lot more.

My interest in this technology is as a means of providing one more form of accessibility aid for those who need it. Using the Doppler effect in this way has the advantage of making it possible to sense gestures in any light and under most conditions. In other words, even though the range of gestures is limited, once refined, the technology should prove extremely reliable. If you have some special need, reliability is always a primary concern. You need to know that the technology you’re using is always going to work as expected, even if that technology is a little less flexible than you’d like it to be. Someone who has some type of movement or speech need could use hand gestures to better communicate with the computer.

More importantly, for me, seeing this technology coming out tells me that science fiction often becomes science fact. Cinematic presentations such as TekWar have emphasized the use of hand gestures for years now. I remember being quite engrossed in the four made-for-television movies when they came out. One of the technologies that grabbed my attention was how people were manipulating computer input in a 3D space using gestures. This sort of technology seemed like complete fantasy at the time, but now it seems a lot closer to reality.

One of the questions that has occupied my mind for years is whether the mouse and keyboard will eventually go away. Voice technology gets close, but not close enough. I certainly couldn’t use something like Dragon Naturally Speaking to write my books, but some people do use it to create less technical documents. (In fact, I’ve reviewed this product several times—the last time on DevSource, but the article is no longer available.) Human speech is so complex that we really do need something to augment technologies used to understand it. Perhaps gesture technologies will fulfill this role.

How do you see the future of computing? Will gesture technology, coupled with some for of spoken input, eventually replace the keyboard and mouse? How do you think this technology will serve as an accessibility aid? Let me know at