The launch of Google Plus took the social media world by storm, as 20 million people joined the new social network within one month of its launch — the fastest enrollment rate of any social media network in history. With features that distinguish Google+ from its social network rivals Facebook and Twitter, the world’s largest search engine has a potential gold mine on its hands.
Yet, as with any newly popular website, there is almost always an accessibility challenge. One of Google+’s innovative features is Hangouts, a group video application in which a person chats with up to ten people in his or her selected circle. It is a very interesting feature — not quite Chatroulette, but a bit random in that the first ten people in a person’s circle who sees him or her on screen will join in. It could be an effective way of doing videoconferencing on the fly. Already, some companies such as Dell are interested in incorporating the Hangouts technology into their business.
However, Hangouts is not accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who use sign language. One of the key features of Hangouts is its use of audio cues to focus on whoever is talking by enlarging that person’s screen. Since sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) are not audible, there is presently no way for Hangouts to cue to the person who is signing. According to GigaOM, Google is already aware of this issue: it is now conducting field testing on an ASL version of Hangouts that can be used in Google+.
This proactiveness on Google’s part seems to demonstrate the company’s commitment to ensuring that its products and platforms are accessible to its consumers with disabilities. Google keeps a website dedicated to accessibility initiatives at google.com/accessibility, and has made an effort to listen to customer feedback — even by including a link on its accessibility home page titled “Tell us what we could do better.”
So, as both hearing and deaf people figure out Hangouts — this feature is very much in its early-adopter stage — it will be very interesting to see what trick Google has up its sleeve in making Hangouts accessible to sign language users. Because when Google or another company comes up with a motion-sensitive innovation that senses when someone is signing, this innovation could have uses in other contexts besides group video applications. Stay tuned.