Assistive Technologies

What’s ready now and what’s in your future

Article Highlights:
  • Steve Spohn — an expert in gaming with disabilities and assistive technologies, and editor-in-chief of AbleGamers.com — highlights a few technologies that make life easier, safer and more efficient for people with progressive muscle weakness. Some technologies currently exist; others are coming in the near future.
  • A resource list offers links to the technologies described in the article; links are provided to videos of some technologies in action.
by Steve Spohn on April 1, 2013 - 9:21am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 2

Entering into the world of disability should come with a giant neon sign that reads “Warning: Technology Ahead.” It’s inescapable. Not only is it all around us but for many of us, technology keeps us alive well beyond what the naysayers predict.

Different neuromuscular diseases progress at different rates, but eventually we all start losing mobility, strength and/or dexterity. Some of us will need canes, walkers, wheelchairs and even ventilators. Some will need technology that doesn’t yet exist.

Assistive technology allows increased freedom, improved quality of life and furthers independence. Yet, newer technologies are often expensive, leaving them out of reach for most on disability budgets.

Let’s examine which technologies will make your life better when you need it — without breaking the bank.

The technology of today

Click on photos to enlarge.
For those with hand mobility, Apple’s iPad can be a multitasking assistive device with many apps available.
Just around the corner is the Ubi, a voice-activated plug-in device to control your lights, TV, phone and access to the Internet.
Going beyond operating your TV, the Logitech Harmony remote can control a screen-mounted HD camera for high-quality Skype connections.
The more-affordable Tobii REX eye-tracking device moves your mouse pointer where you want it on the screen.
Due out within a year, Google’s glasses will project a smartphone mini screen onto one of the lenses. Voice  command will enable you to search the Internet, make phone calls and take photos.
In the near future, a wearable exoskeleton from Ekso will sense brain signals and enable paraplegics to walk.

iPads: For those with some hand strength and range of mobility, the iPad has an abundance of apps and mounts to adapt the device to your specific abilities. There’s simply too much information to list in this article, but let’s go over some quick examples.

The iPad can record lectures at school or college, saving you from taking notes. You can upload your books to an iPad if physically holding a book is difficult. You can mount it to your wheelchair for use on the go. The standard controls of a game can be more accessible on the large screen of an iPad with its simplistic, touch-based controls. Need to write a report, control your television, turn on your stereo or make a phone call? The iPad provides alternative means of doing all of those tasks and more.

Vocally Infinity 3: When you need a little bit more help physically, the best device you can purchase is one that gives you peace of mind. With the Vocally Infinity 3, you can dial any phone with just your voice. You’ll need a phone that you’re able to access, such as a switch-enabled phone, speakerphone or headset. To make a  call, simply say the name of the person you want to dial and the device does the rest. (For another voice-activated speakerphone, see the Fortissimo featured in Product Peeks Spring 2013.)

PC technology: There are an infinite number of assistive technologies available to help you utilize a personal computer, ultimately making it your best friend. The voice recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 allows you to speak into a microphone and control your PC without ever lifting a finger. The software recognizes voice commands such as clicking on website links, opening programs and preset tasks. Voice recognition has come a long way in the last 10 years. Although the technology has been around since the 1990s, it was slow and often inaccurate. Users became frustrated when the software would become unresponsive or start pushing wrong buttons with disastrous results. Today, voice recognition has been integrated into everything from our cars to our phones, and Dragon itself now reaches up to 99 percent accuracy. If talking out loud isn’t your preference, consider an on-screen keyboard with dwell technology. A virtual representation of the keyboard is placed onto your screen and functions the same as a normal keyboard. You can click the buttons with the mouse or enable dwell, which pushes the button for you by leaving the pointer over a key for five seconds. Alternatively some keyboards can scan across the keys until the one you want is highlighted.

Environmental controls: Another crucial ability is operating the environment around you. There are many high-tech and expensive ways to accomplish that goal, but the most cost-effective is to purchase a device called a USB-UIRT, which allows you to broadcast infrared (IR) signals (just like your TV remote) from your personal computer. Combined with a program called Girder, the USB-UIRT can learn the IR codes of any remote controlled device.

Point your TV, DVD, radio and other remotes to the USB-UIRT, program the codes and operate your entire environment from your PC. You’ll be able to use any assistive technology you already use, including eyegaze, to operate your environment. You also can purchase additional IR receiver modules to operate things that aren’t traditionally remote-controlled, like lights and fans.

If you can push buttons on a standard universal remote control, Logitech Harmony offers the same ability as the USB-UIRT without requiring a PC.

Wheelchair driving: Perhaps the most vital component to regaining independence is driving your power wheelchair. Up until recently, once you lost the ability to control a joystick there was nothing that could be done. Now there are all kinds of interesting ways you can drive wheelchairs, but the most popular is the ASL mini-proportional joystick. The device uses a thimble-sized joystick that can be operated with a feather-light touch. If you only have millimeters of movement and little strength, you’ll be able to continue driving with this Medicare-covered device. Moreover, newer models come with a Bluetooth-enabled interface allowing you to operate the mouse on your computer from the same joystick.

Future technology

Technology doesn’t stand still for long. We’ll continue to see progressively more advanced technology helping the disabled community. Here are a few things you can look forward to:

24/7 computer assistance: The Ubiquitous Computer (Ubi), set to be released in April 2013, is a voice-activated computer assistant, similar to the ones on newer smartphones, which plugs into your wall and accesses the Internet via Wi-Fi. You’ll be able to control the lights, thermostat, TV, Internet and phone — all with the sound of your voice. No button to press and the device is always listening. Ubi will be the ultimate in security and independence for people with limited mobility.

Cheaper gaze technology: Tobii, a world leader in eye-tracking technology, unveiled its latest product, Tobii REX, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. A small box attached underneath the center of your monitor keeps track of where you’re looking and moves the mouse pointer to that appropriate position in real time, giving those with very little movement further control over their computers.

Until now, the technology has been expensive, running thousands of dollars for quality hardware. But the company is calling Tobii REX the first eye-tracking device targeted at the mainstream, midprice consumer market. The consumer model will cost less than $1,000 when released later this fall; 5,000 limited-edition units are available for preorder.

Computer eyeglasses: Available within the next year, Google’s Project Glass is one of the hottest techie items to premiere in quite some time. An overlay that looks identical to your smartphone will be embedded in the glasses themselves. Imagine seeing the screen of an iPhone imprinted around the lenses of your glasses. For those with arm, hand and finger weakness, the ability to wear your smartphone and operate it by speaking instead of pushing small buttons on a hand-held device will be phenomenal. You’ll be able to take pictures, call friends, search the Internet, and more — all by voice command.

The glasses will be specific to the device itself at first, but rumor has it that the technology will quickly evolve into something that can be put into your prescription eyeglasses.

Robot suits: And finally, science fiction has been promising us exoskeletons since the Golden Age of pulp fiction. But a company called Ekso is promising that day is coming sooner than you think. A “wearable robot suit” that attaches to your legs and torso may ultimately be as common as wheelchairs.

The suit allows paraplegics to walk by sensing the electromagnetic signals the body puts out. It turns out that — whether you’re talking about a neuromuscular disease or an injury from a traumatic event — the body usually continues to send out signals from the brain to get our bodies to do what we want them to do.

Similarly, bioengineers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are hard at work on brain computer interface technology that would allow robotic arms to assist or replace nonfunctional limbs.

Within the next decade we may have the resources to allow people with progressive muscle disorders, like myself, to bolster ourselves with technology and, as we lose abilities through the natural progress of the disease, to replace them with robotic technology. The future looks bright.

Steve Spohn is an expert in gaming with disabilities and assistive technologies, editor-in-chief of AbleGamers.com and outreach chair for the AbleGamers Foundation. The 32-year-old Pittsburgh native, who has spinal muscular atrophy, also is a Web designer, gamer and writer.

Note: For advice about getting the most from voice-recognition software, read an MDA blog by Ann Motl, a law student with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT).

Resources

ASL mini-proportional joystick
Adaptive Switch Laboratories
(800) 626-8698

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12
Nuance
(800) 654-1187

Girder (automation software)
Promixis
(805) 504-9740

Hands-Free Adapter for Nokia Phones
Enablemart
(888) 640-1999

iPad
Apple Inc.
(800) 676-2775

Logitech Harmony Remotes
Logitech
(800) 231-7717

SaviGo Headset System
Plantronics
(888) 752-6876

Tobii REX
Tobii Gaze Interaction
(888) 898-6244

The Ubiquitous Computer
Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation

USB-UIRT
(Universal Infrared Receiver/Transmitter)

Vocally Infinity 3
(voice activated dialer)
Zygo-USA
(888) 321-6006

ZooMate switch-adapted Bluetooth speakerphone
SAJE Technology
(847) 756-7603

Watch this!

Google's Project Glass
See the device from a user's point of view.

Brain Computer Interface
See a paralyzed woman use this technology to feed herself chocolate.

Ekso Bionics
See the robot suit in action.

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