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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 10:47 GMT
Smart card to open up computing
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

Photo of a woman looking at a VDU
Customisation will be possible in a variety of environments
Intelligent cards that enable visually impaired people to customise computers and ATMs automatically have been unveiled at a conference in Birmingham.

The Special Needs Application Program Interface, or Snapi, puts a user's preferences on a smart card.

The cards can be used in cash dispensers, ticket machines and public access computers.

Once a Snapi card is removed, the machine automatically returns to its default settings.

The technology was developed by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) in collaboration with Suffolk County Council and two companies based in the West Midlands.

Use in libraries

Snapi was unveiled at the RNIB's annual gathering for technology professionals with an interest in assistive technology - Techshare - which takes place ion Birmingham between 17-18 November.

There is a number of possibilities for various disabilities. The idea is to make life that little bit easier
Dr John Gill, RNIB
Snapi is software which standardises the coding of individual preferences so they can be stored on a smart card.

The idea has already attracted the interest of local authorities, the Home Office and the banking industry.

"I imagine that local authorities will start using it either later this year or early next," John Gill, RNIB chief scientist, told the BBC News website.

Dr Gill says the first application of the new technology will be for public computers in local libraries.

"These PCs are predominantly for those who don't have internet access at home - sometimes children, sometimes older people," he said.

While many people tinker with these machines to change font sizes, colours and contrast, this does mean that the next user has to reset the computer or tweak it for their use.

Snapi could make the whole process much smoother by storing a user's preferences on their library card and have a computer react to this information when it reads the card.

Wide use

Other information about a person's access needs can also be included so that, for example, staff at leisure centres will know to speak slowly and clearly to someone who has a hearing impairment.

"This would be entirely the user's choice as to whether they wanted that information included, but it would avoid the need to explain their condition repeatedly," said Dr Gill.

Photo of a child looking at a computer with a woman
Public access computers can also be adapted to suit the user
"There is a number of possibilities for various disabilities. The idea is to make life that little bit easier."

The Department for Transport has already incorporated the new standard into its specification for ticket machines.

And the banking industry has said that it will implement Snapi at some point in the future, but no date has yet been given.

For Dr Gill, the appeal of the technology is that it stores information about a person's preferences rather than about their disability.

"For example, if a person chooses large characters it may simply be because they don't want to wear glasses in public."

One limitation is that not every machine will be able to comply with what the user wants: a user may well request speech output from a cash dispenser but very few ATMs currently have speech enabled.

The Home Office has expressed initial interest in adding the coding to ID cards.

But Dr Gill stresses that this would be completely separate from someone's personal information.

"You could put it into a ticket machine and pay with cash - it wouldn't need to know who you were, just your preferences for using that machine," he said.

Techshare is at Jury's Inn in Birmingham on 17-18 November.

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