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Last Updated: Monday, 18 September 2006, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Deaf to 'hear' PA system on phone
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Photo of an airport departure board
LAMA should help make public spaces more user friendly
A group of research students at IBM has developed a system to make public announcements available to people on a mobile phone.

Called LAMA, the service was originally conceived to improve communications for deaf people.

Its designers hope that it will soon be in use in busy public places like airports, railway stations and hospitals.

LAMA was developed at IBM's laboratory at Hursley in Hampshire.

As someone enters a place where the LAMA - or Location Aware Messaging for Accessibility - system is running, it is recognised by their mobile phone which will then display a list of the services on offer.

After a user has signed up for the service, public address announcements will be delivered to their handset in their chosen format.

Vibrating alert

This would often be a text message, but could also be an image or a vibrating alert.

The inspiration behind LAMA came from a profoundly deaf IBM employee who was concerned that he would not hear the fire alarm at the same time as his colleagues.

"Although there's a flashing light over his desk, he wasn't necessarily at this desk," explained IBM's Andy Stanford-Clark, who has the title of master inventor.

"He said if we could wire up the computer to the fire system and send a message through the IBM messaging system to his phone he could be alerted that way."

The idea was then given to four students as part of the company's Extreme Blue research programme.

Although the system was originally designed to help deaf people, it could be of benefit to people with other types of disabilities and to the population as a whole.

Audio form

Blind people for instance could have the messages delivered in audio form.

Photo of Claire Leckey looking down at her mobile phone
Claire Leckey spent 12 weeks helping to perfect the LAMA idea

Because the technology is able to determine someone's location, it can be used for guidance or orientation as well as delivering public service announcements

And Dr Stanford-Clark thinks it could help people with dementia or learning difficulties who can become disorientated in new and busy environments.

Instructions on how to find a particular shop in a large shopping centre could be sent as a list of text instructions or by sending a map to a person's mobile.

Dr Stanford-Clark says a future version could light up signs to show someone the way to their chosen location.

For LAMA to become universally available, he believes that more buildings will have to be fitted with "intelligent infrastructure" and smart phones will have to become the norm.

Claire Leckey - a 22 year-old business studies student at Northumbria University - was one of the four people who have spent the past 12 weeks developing LAMA.

Under discussion

She says the future business model is very much still under discussion.

In the case of a railway station, IBM would have to come to an arrangement with a train company.

But she doesn't rule out having end users pay for the service using a subscription with their mobile provider.

"But if the system was made compulsory by government, it would be another model again," she said.

IBM says that a train company has already expressed interest in LAMA, and that pilots could begin before the end of this year.

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