Thank goodness I can still be surprised in this industry. I just found out about a truly unique web conferencing product that deserves much more publicity than it has received. IDEAL Conference from IDEAL Group exists for the sole purpose of bringing online collaboration to members of the community with limited physical capabilities in a variety of areas. In other words, it contains an exclusive feature set designed to let the blind, deaf, colorblind, partial vision, and hard of hearing take part in webinars and web conferences.
The target customer base for IDEAL Group tends to be government agencies, federally funded businesses, and educational institutions that need to serve the entire community, with particular attention paid to Section 508 Compliance and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I spoke with Steve Jacobs, President of IDEAL Group, who told me “We don’t compete with WebEx, GoToWebinar, Live Meeting, and other web conferencing products. We are a different solution that organizations turn to after those products fail to meet their accessibility requirements.”
I went through a lengthy demonstration of IDEAL Conference with Steve, and I found that I had to constantly remind myself of this niche purpose when looking at their implementation strategy. At first, some of the features seem confusing or limiting. But when matched with the extensive training and documentation that IDEAL Group provides on best practices, it falls into place.
The company and the product have their origins in special projects work at AT&T in 1991. Steve Jacobs was involved very early on in both volunteer and formal business incarnations of the work, which was controlled by NCR after a divestiture and from there to the independent company as it now stands. Jacobs himself has been intimately involved with accessibility concerns in government, business, and telecommunications for decades. He has chaired or participated in numerous government committees and co-authored the report that was used to develop the Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines. This guy knows what his market needs and exactly how it has to work!
IDEAL Conference runs best when installed as a local client application on a Windows-based PC. However it also supports Mac and Linux users through a web browser client that has slightly lessened functionality. Most customers run the application as a vendor-hosted “Software as a Service” application. But it can be licensed and installed on a company’s servers as well. The product was developed from scratch and does not use another vendor’s code base as the underlying platform.
Going through all the accessibility-specific features would take quite a while to describe and explain, so I’ll just try to give a high level summary here.
The product integrates with screen reading technology that is commonly used by the blind. Examples include JAWS by Freedom Scientific and Window-Eyes by GW Micro. These products work on the basis of being able to focus on a particular computer window that contains text content. For this reason, IDEAL Group gives extensive guidelines on preparing PowerPoint presentation content for use in their system. You want to minimize or eliminate graphic images and place limited text content on each slide. When you upload your slides to the web conferencing room, they are converted to appropriate text coded web pages for use in the conference. This lets them be infinitely resized and scaled, while allowing text selection/copy/paste and complete compatibility with text-to-speech software.
The handling of typed chat content is interesting as well. The product contains its own internal text-to-speech functionality and each user can configure it to announce or suppress information such as participant entrance/exit from the conference, status messages, and typed chat entries. I tried it out with some abstruse terms and multisyllabic gobbledygook, and it worked like a charm. Because the product has to be accessible for those who cannot see menu items, every function and command in the system has a keyboard access, and menus can be spoken by the system to help users navigate through their choices. Each user can remap keyboard command shortcuts as necessary to avoid conflicts with other software in use simultaneously – since screen reader software or other aids might have their own command sequences.
In addition to spoken chat, users can change the color, size, and font of their chat windows to allow those with low vision or colorblindness to more clearly see the text. They can also close off the presentation area completely and dedicate their screen just to text communications.
For users who are hard of hearing and use hearing devices, there is an option to stream a very high quality audio broadcast that works better with Telecoil (T-coil) headsets that plug directly into a PC. This can offset the problems with high frequency loss and interference sometimes encountered on compressed audio streams.
Deaf users can run the web conference in conjunction with a live captioning service or a video relay service. These are not provided as in included function of the conferencing software, but IDEAL Conference has ways to include the video relay operators in a special mode that lets them bring their users into the collaboration as smoothly as possible.
Some features are not specific to the needs of limited physical capabilities, but were added because of the general nature of the users that IDEAL’s customers tended to included in their conferences. Because many of their conferences are designed for education and youth services, chat can be completely moderated, with each message vetted and approved before showing up to the conference group. You can even ban a user based on IP address, so they can’t just log on again under a different name.
Because government services often serve people with dial-up connectivity, the software is designed to let users enable a special buffering mode that helps them get all the content without losing internet data packets. They might see easily transmitted text appear first, with an indicator saying that audio is buffering. Then they play catch up as the buffer fills and plays the audio back smoothly.
To serve the needs of course validation and continuing education units, the software can time stamp and log chat messages and other interactions to prove that people were actively listening to the presentation content.
The conference recording capabilities are interesting as well. Conferences are recorded in a format that allows them to be played back inside a live conference. The moderator can pause the playback and insert additional commentary or take live questions and then proceed with the prerecorded content. This is a great option for those who present the same information over and over and don’t want to repeat the main information delivery while still providing live interaction with their audiences.
I was quite impressed with the associated training and tip sheets that IDEAL Group provides for meeting hosts and presenters. This isn’t just a question of learning how to use the product features… It’s a methodology based on understanding how to construct your content and run a meeting to meet the specialized needs of limited access users. The company really cares about how their product gets used and tries to ensure that the target end users will have as useful an online experience as possible.
I took a look at sample pricing and found it very competitive with other web conferencing technologies out there. Organizations can run small collaborative sessions or large auditorium style webinars for hundreds of listeners.
IDEAL Conference is an important and unique offering in the web conferencing world. Online collaboration should be accessible to all, but the implementation of traditional web conferencing products makes it very hard to achieve compliance with all ADA and Section 508 requirements. This is the first and only product I have seen that is designed from first principles to serve limited access computer users. If you want to reach this community, IDEAL Conference should be on the shortest of short lists for consideration.