When we talk about "the digital divide" we tend automatically to think of cost, but PCs are not expensive these days, so what else could be getting in the way of people buying and using them?
Take language, for instance - or more specifically your writing script. As an English speaker, how would you get on if the only keyboards available to you had Russian characters - Cyrillic - on them?
At least you could learn to transliterate between Latin and Cyrillic letters, but what if your language had hundreds or even thousands of possible characters?
That's roughly the position that a surprisingly large slice of the world's population finds itself in, because unlike English or Russian, their written language isn't easily adapted to a keyboard. The best known example is probably Mandarin Chinese, but there are many other scripts with hundreds of characters.
One option is of course to work in English, but not everyone is fluent enough - and anyway, why should they learn a foreign language just to use a computer?
Now though, a bit of lateral thinking is breaking the PC away from its reliance on that legacy of the typewriter - the keyboard. Researchers at HP Labs in Bangalore have come up with the idea of using a pen and a graphics tablet, not to recognise hand-drawn characters but to take a basic set and then let the user modify them as appropriate.
It turns out that some 2 billion people use languages that are gestural, such as Hindi, Urdu, Farsi (Persian) and Arabic. For example, with Hindi you have a base set of 44 consonants which you then modify with one of 17 gestures or maatras - a bit like adding an accent in French or German - to indicate the associated vowel sound.
Add ligatures and other features, and you have well over 1000 possible characters. Current keyboards achieve this only by using the letter keys along with complex and tough-to-remember combinations of Alt, Shift and Ctrl.
What HP senior researcher Dr Shekhar Borgaonkar realised was that if your "keyboard" had only the consonants on, you could use a pen to add the gesture, with the computer working out which character to display.
Gestural keyboards are now opening up online information to Indians who couldn't access it in the past, and the HP team are looking at extending the technique to more languages, such as Japanese.
Of course, European languages have relatively small character sets, so don't need this treatment. But it's an interesting reminder that - no matter what the project is - the block facing your users may well not be what you think it is.
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