AOL's New Chat Comes Across Letter by Letter

Monday, January 21, 2008

If you were reading this sentence over AOL's new instant messenger, each word would be u-n-f-o-l-d-i-n-g letter by letter as it was typed.

AOL recently launched this real-time chat feature, targeting the deaf and people with hearing impairments. Because a user sees each letter an online buddy types -- rather than waiting for the other person to compose the entire message and press the send button -- the user can spontaneously react to words, just as someone would respond to words spoken in conversation.

Norman Williams, a senior research engineer at Gallaudet University, developed the prototype for combining real-time text communication with traditional instant messaging. AOL took an interest and in six months integrated the feature into a test version of its popular AIM messaging software.

"The real-time feature can speed up conversation, avoid misunderstandings that can come from out-of-sequence messages and give it a natural flow," said Judy Harkins, director of Gallaudet's technology access program. "We think it will be best for one-on-one conversations, especially in urgent situations or where time is of the essence."

In the future, Gallaudet hopes to develop a real-time feature to contact 911 from the Internet, Harkins said.

About 32 million American adults have some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. With teletypewriters, or TTY, costing $300 to $600, instant messaging has become a popular alternative. It doesn't need special equipment and can be used on mobile devices.

Real-time messaging will add emphasis and intonation to text conversations, said Gregg Vanderheiden, professor and director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which also worked on the project. "It's not there to expose all your little typos," he said.

-- Kendra Marr

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