The inability to modify or add a third-party layer of code onto proprietary software is limiting the progress and implementation of human-computer interface research, say researchers at the University of Washington. In response

, they have developed Prefab, which turns proprietary software into open source. How? All proprietary software, however different from one another, have something in common: pixels.

"Microsoft and Apple aren't going to open up all their stuff. But they all create programs that put pixels on the screen. And if we can modify those pixels, then we can change the program's apparent behavior," said James Fogarty, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

The researchers copy a program’s pixels from a source window and then interpret them with Prefab. They then add enhancements which are mapped to the source. Since Prefab is based entirely on the pixels of an interface, it is operating-system agnostic.

One of the projects, built by a PhD candidate for personal use, was to mashup Microsoft Word and iTunes, allowing him to control iTunes with buttons added to the Word toolbar.

"We really see this as a first step toward a scenario where anybody can modify any application," Fogarty said. "In a sense, this has happened online. You've got this mash-up culture on the Web because everybody can see the HTML. But that hasn't been possible on the desktop."

The main goal of the research is to make proprietary software more accessible for the disabled, using tools that have been developed but cannot yet be integrated. For example, the bubble cursor, a target-aware tool that highlights the button that’s closest to it, is potentially useful for patients with motor-control disabilities, but until now has not usable with proprietary applications.

By Mark Alvarez