Voice Controlled Smart Home Tech – User review

Amazon Echo smart speaker

Over the course of history there have always been single named women who have influenced our lives and Culture: Cleopatra, Maggie, Madonna, and now it’s the turn of Alexa! I have been curious and intrigued by the benefits of technological assistants with regards my disability, so I was very excited when Enable Ireland gave me an opportunity to try out Alexa in the form of the Amazon Echo.

How easy is it to get the Echo up and running?

The initial setup of the Amazon Echo is very simple to carry out. You need to download the Amazon Alexa app to your smartphone (get used to downloading apps on your phone), the app will search for the device, the app will then connect to the device through the devices own Wi-Fi signal, you then connect your device to your home broadband, and hey presto within a few minutes your Amazon Echo is up and running.

What can Alexa do on its own?

Alexa logo - speech bubble - blue on while circle on blue background - square
Alexa Logo

The initial benefits of the Amazon Echo for a person with a disability are very limited. You can ask Alexa what the weather will be like, what time it is, to set reminders, and some other quirky less useful questions: “Alexa, tell me a joke”, “What’s the capital of Finland?”, or more randomly “Alexa, beatbox for me”.

Using the Alexa app you can enable other skills to assist you in your daily activities. If you are into music you can add 🙂 your Spotify profile to Alexa, this is very simple to do if you can use a smartphone. Alexa will then play your playlists through its impressive speakers. This is very handy, even for someone who is not into music much, as it means I don’t need to listen to music through my basic phone speakers nor do I have to call someone to change a cd in my stereo. It is great for podcasts as well, though as Alexa sometimes has difficulty understanding people you might be better off setting up a playlist through your Spotify app first if any of your favourite podcasts have quirky names like my favourite Arsenal podcast Arsecast by Arseblog!

If you have vision impairment, have difficulty holding a book, or you just like Audiobooks you can quickly add your Audible account too, tilt back in your chair and listen to your favourite book or a new release. It can also update you with the latest news, traffic, and weather for your area as well.

If you have trouble with your memory because of a head injury, or you just have a head like a sieve as I do, the reminders and timers could be very useful. I normally add reminders to my phone as I can’t write them down but just immediately calling them out is useful as sometimes I go to add them to my phone and get distracted by Twitter and the likes. The timers are useful if you’re cooking and the chicken needs just five minutes more.

What can Alexa do using IOT – The Internet Of Things?

For someone with a physical disability this is where it really sparked my interest. I struggle with some aspects of technology and to physically control my environment so I thought I would benefit from Alexa and the Echo.

Smart WeMo Plug

wemo smart plug in double socket
WeMo Plug

Firstly I decided to set up the lamp in my sitting room. In order to use Alexa to switch on your light you either need a smart plug or you need smart bulbs and a Wi-Fi hub. Enable Ireland had also provided me with a WeMo smart plug in this instance. The setup for the WeMo smart plug was very similar to the initial setup of the Amazon Echo: download the app, connect to the devices own Wi-Fi, and connect the device to your home broadband.

Once you have that done you can control the lamp directly from your smartphone only if you wanted, in order to connect it to the Alexa you need to go back to the Alexa app and pair the Alexa with the WeMo smart plug from there. 

Overall it is very simple System and process and once you have it up all you have to do is say “Alexa, turn on the lamp”. This was a complete success and over the time I had the devices this is the one that proved most simple to use and most consistent. It was lovely if I was on my own for a little while coming toward evening, I could give that simple command and “Let there be light!”

Firestick TV

Amazon Firestick

The other devices I had to connect to the Echo were related to the TV. I use an Amazon fire stick to play games on my TV and also to watch Netflix. I knew from watching YouTube videos that you could pair your Amazon Echo with your fire stick and use Alexa to open Netflix and play your movies and shows.

Unfortunately this was not so easy to carry out. It seemed simple at first, get your Alexa device to scan your Wi-Fi for compatible devices and when you see the Firestick click connect. Unfortunately this is where I ran into some problems. In order to get the Alexa to carry out these procedures I had to enable its TV skills through the app. I had to do something similar to set up my Spotify account so I wasn’t too worried at first. Frustratingly when I went into the app to enable that TV skill the screen went blank and gave me no options to enable it. After numerous attempts to carry this out and searches on the internet to find a solution I eventually contacted Amazon’s online support and having gone through three advisors I found the solution by enabling it through my laptop and my Amazon account on the Desktop site. Phew!

The results of that is I can come into sitting room in the morning, with the TV turned off, and ask Alexa to open Netflix. If you know the name of the movie or show you want to watch you can ask Alexa to open it directly. You can play, pause and fast forward or rewind whatever you are watching. This has been very helpful for me is the remote for my fire stick is tiny and the buttons are incredibly difficult to press. If you are a movie buff and have difficulties using small remotes then this solution is probably worth all the hassle it took to set it up in the first place!

Harmony Hub

Logitech Harmony Hub universal IR remote control
Harmony Hub

In the package from Enable Ireland there was also a Logitech Harmony Hub. At first, I had no idea what it was. I had never heard of it before. A bit of Googling revealed that it is a universal remote control. A bit of YouTubing revealed that it could be paired with Alexa to turn on and control a whole host of electronic devices including your TV, Stereo System, or Sky Box.

This is a complex setup. You set up the Harmony hub much the same way as you do the other devices. So again that means you need to download another app to connect it to your Wi-Fi, I hope you have enough space on your smartphone!  Once it is set up and ready to go you need to use the Alexa app to enable the Harmony Hub skill so Alexa can communicate with the Harmony Hub. Now use the Harmony App to scan for smart devices that may be on your Wi-Fi already, like a smart TV. If you have something that is not smart like my Sky box, you simply search in the app for the product and add it to your list of devices. Right, now that you have your devices listed and the Hub and Alexa can talk to one another what can you tell them to do?

Using the Harmony app you can set up a range of “activities”. These are relatively easy to set up as you follow a step by step process through the app. Quite quickly I had it set up so that I could tell Alexa to turn on the TV, it would turn on the TV and set it to the Sky TV extension immediately. I also set it up so I could increase and decrease the volume of the TV and I could change the ordinary terrestrial channels on the TV. I have seen that you can change channels on your Sky box and set “favourite channels” to tune to quickly but, frustratingly, while I can do that through the Harmony app on my phone I haven’t been able to do that using Alexa despite numerous and persistent attempts. Apparently, it is possible if you set an “activity” for each individual channel but life is too short!

If you are technically proficient enough and you have a big enough budget there are whole host of other devices you could use with the Alexa to smarten up your home whether it is to control your heating or even to unlock your door!

Are there Privacy Issues?

screenshot of Alexa terms of use
Alexa terms of Use

There are some concerns about privacy and the Alexa. Some of the stories surrounding this issue I’m sure have been exaggerated for headlines but there is a basis to some of the concern too with Amazon admitting that staff listen to people’s interactions with Alexa (I think they’ll get a laugh from some of my frustrated interactions where Alexa was called everything under the sun while I tried in vain to control the Sky box via Alexa).

The Terms of Use is the first thing you’ll see when you download the Alexa app. This sort of sets the tone for what to expect with Alexa.

I know from my experience with the Alexa that there have been some strange happenings. During conversations in the same room as the Alexa the blue light that indicates Alexa is listening has come on. On another occasion Alexa has piped up with search results that were not asked for in the middle of a conversation. Nothing too sinister I’m sure but something I’m personally not too comfortable with.

It’s up to you whether you’re willing to give up that sense of personal privacy in place of the benefits Alexa provides.

Conclusion

I was very excited to try out the Amazon Echo and Alexa. I felt this was my opportunity to finally make up my mind on whether to purchase one or not, a decision I had been debating over for some time.

Alexa promises so much to help me with my physical disability. Overall in this aspect it did live up to expectation. It was frustrating that I couldn’t manage to set it up to operate my Sky box but I was able to set it up to use most the functions on my TV, and the Alexa in conjunction with the WeMo plug gave the most satisfying and consistent function of switching my sitting room lamp on and off. If I were to purchase an Echo I would consider investing further into the other devices that could do as the WeMo plug did.

The other aspects of the Echo were less beneficial to me as they didn’t involve improving my access to my physical environment. That does not take away from the fact that they could be hugely beneficial for someone with a different disability such as a sensory disability: reminders, timers, your Spotify, and your Audiobooks through Alexa would simplify so many parts of a person’s life.

For someone with a high level disability or someone who has difficulty using a smartphone the set up process of the Echo itself may be a little complex. The set up process for some of the “activities” on the Harmony Hub would take the most seasoned of smartphone users to the point where they just give up (ie. me 🙂

The initial cost of the Amazon Echo is very affordable. However, if someone with a disability wishes to use the Echo and Alexa to its full potential to make their lives more independent then they will need to spend a lot more. A quick Google suggested that a Wi-Fi plug similar to the WeMo plug is €22 each while a Harmony Hub remote is available for approximately €120. So if you’re hoping to live in a completely smart home it’s going to be difficult if you’re sole source of income is your Disability Allowance.

All that being said, that decision I have been debating over for some time, have I made it? Well, in a sense I have. I am fortunate to be able to use my mobile phone without much difficulty so in the short term I think I will get a Harmony Hub which will allow me to carry out most of what Alexa has been doing for me on this trial but through my phone and without the worry of Amazon employees listening in on me. In the medium to long term I’m sure I’ll revisit Alexa or even the Google equivalent!

Accessible Photography – Photo Editing with Adobe Lightroom & the Grid 3

Some time back, when I was finishing up a photography shoot, I met a gentleman who had informed me that his photography career had been cut short due to having a stroke a few years earlier. This was back in 2011, and options were a lot more limited in terms of cameras, software and accessibility in general. Earlier in the year, as part of my Foundations in AT course, it was suggested to me to incorporate my photography background into my project. Now in 2019, there are a lot more options for accessibility in photography, between mounts for the cameras, wi-fi connectivity between camera and PC/Phone/Tablet. However taking the photo is only half the work for a photographer.

Film photographers have to develop their photos, Digital photographers have to edit their photos. Adobe Lightroom is an industry standard program for editing photos. It is also very shortcut friendly. As a result, I was able to make it work with Grid 3 to enable basic editing such as converting to black and white, adjusting colour balance, brightness. Contrast and exposure. Cropping and converting an image from Portrait to Landscape and vice versa could also be achieved via the Grid. In the short time I had to create this grid, it can be easily expanded on, adding access to other modules (such as Export, Slideshow, Book, Print, etc) to access other features like Slideshow Templates, Print Setup, Exporting with previous settings or email a photo. While functionality of this grid is minimal, there is plenty of room for expansion.

Download the Lightroom Grid here or directly through the Grid application (search for Adobe or Lightroom).

Below is a demonstration of the Lightroom Grid.

Amazon Echo Buttons

Game features

The amazon echo buttons come in packs of two costing around €20, making them very affordable. The echo buttons began as a children’s game console. Alexa can play a wide variety of games including: Amazon Echo Buttons

  • Trivial Pursuit Tap

Alexa asks a question from one of six categories and friends compete to buzz their echo button first and answer the question correctly.

  • Hanagram

Alexa reads a series of clues and the first person to buzz their echo button and solve the puzzle gets a point.

  • Bandit Buttons

This game requires two to four players. Too score a point you must be the first person to tap your button when all buttons turn the same colour. The person with the most taps wins.

  • Squeak in the Night

2-4 mice go on the hunt for any food they can find, however they must keep away from the cat lucy.

These are the apps introduced with the buttons, however there is a much wider variety in the amazon store, many of which are free.

SmartHome features

As well as the fun games available, you can add smarthome features to the echo buttons. Simply click the top left corner of the homepage of the alexa app, out of the options that appear click on routines. Click the plus symbol in the top right corner of routines. Firstly choose “when this happens” then select the echo button. You will be asked to click the echo button you wish to perform the task. Finally click “add action”, followed by smart home. Here there will be multiple functions for the button to perform, for example “turn on lamp”. Once you have selected the function you want, click save and play around with the buttons as much as you want.

The good: Echo buttons are very good value and they allow you to perform household jobs eg, turning on and off the lights with ease.

The not so good: The buttons only allow for one function each, for example if one button has already been programmed to turn on the bedroom light, it cannot be programmed to do anything else.

The verdict: For such a reasonable price, echo buttons can carry out functions that are very beneficial to home owners.

 

XAC (XBOX Adaptive Controller) User Review

I have always been a bit of a gamer. From Tetris on the original Gameboy to Sonic and the SEGA Mega Drive, I was always keen to pass the time away rapidly instructing a cartoon character to bounce from one side of the screen to another. Since I acquired my disability in 1999 though I felt
that large parts of this world were now no longer accessible to me. I felt with limited use of my arms and no use of my fingers consoles were out of the question. That changed recently when the Xbox brought out their new accessible controller.

I had tried to use several different games on the PlayStation and the Xbox, my nephew had a PlayStation and I had been able to use the left stick and some of the buttons on the ordinary controller but despite me telling him not to use the trigger buttons which were inaccessible to me I still got hammered several times by him on FIFA.

This new accessible controller seemed as though it would provide me with the opportunity to have the full experience of console gaming again, but who is going to buy an Xbox One and accessible controller just to see if they can use it or not? Thankfully Enable Ireland came to my rescue and
they allowed me to borrow their console and controller for the period of a month.


XBox Adaptive Controller (XAC)

The controller is simple to use and simple to set up. I needed some help to physically plug some aids in and out of the controller but apart from that it was a breeze.

The controller is setup for people of all abilities. The variety of configurations is as wide as the number of disabilities of the people who it is geared to provide for.

The xbox adaptive controller with some compatible accessories, switches, one handed joystick


I used the controller mainly for games like FIFA, Ryse, Forza 5, and some slightly more intricately controlled games like Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield.

Some games I used just the accessible controller with the coloured plug in switches that Enable Ireland provided alongside the console.

For other more complicated games, I used the Co-Pilot feature. The Co-Pilot feature allows you to use the ordinary controller as best you can while using the accessible controller switches for any bits or buttons on the ordinary controller that you can’t access.

Forza 5

Forza 5 cover
Forza switch setup. 4 switches. break, go , left , right

My setup for Forza, the car racing game, was the simplest of all. I took 4 of the aid switches and plugged them into the accessible controller, one was plugged into RT for the accelerator, one was plugged into LT for the brake, and the remaining two were plugged into the left and right ports on
the d-pad. I placed the RT switch under my elbow to continuously accelerate, which then meant my hands only had to focus on the three remaining buttons for steering and braking. That was a huge success, and meant I did not need any assistance throughout any of the gameplay on that particular game. Though that does not mean I was a great driver!

using elbow switch for accellator left only 3 switches to operate and drive successfully

FIFA 19

FIFA 19 Cover
switch setup for FIFA 19. One switch on arm rest, two on right leg, one on left leg and the xbox controller

For FIFA I used the Co-Pilot feature. I used the ordinary controller as I had done previously with my nephew, steering my player with the left stick while passing, tackling, shooting, etc with the usual A, B, X, and Y buttons.

I used the Xbox Accessible Controller then for the sprint and switch player options. I simply plugged in the switches into the RT and LT ports on the accessible controller and played normally on the ordinary controller while occasionally tapping the switches to change player or holding them down
with my elbow to sprint.

A very successful and intelligent solution which resulted in a 5-1 victory for me over my nephew! His face was a picture 🙂

Ryse, GTA & Battlefield

Ryse cover
Grand Theft Auto cover
Battlefield cover

Each of these I played with a similar set up to FIFA (pictured above). I used the Co-Pilot feature, the ordinary controller in conjunction with the accessible controller with four switches plugged into the RT, LT, RB, and LB ports.

Mainstream controller supplemented by a switch on the armrest, two on right knee and one on left

These games were a bit more intricate in their controls in comparison to the others and a little more difficult to use as a result. The accessible controller meant though that it was possible for me to at least give it a go. This controls setup was good and meant that I actually completed the story mode of Ryse, on easy.

I could play the vast majority of GTA and Battlefield without any difficulty, but there were certain issues. To use the character’s “special abilities” in GTA you had to press down on both the left and right sticks. I think you could set that up but that would require two more switches which I didn’t have.

Also, on occasion, while I had all the right buttons the scenario in the game was so complex that it involved pressing a number of buttons and steering at least one, if not both, sticks at the same time. It was almost equivalent to playing some musical instrument. On one mission I did have to fall back on some assistance from my nephew.

Conclusion

While it is still not quite the same as gaming prior to my disability the Xbox Accessible Controller has reopened the prospect of gaming properly on a regular basis and owning a console of my own again. This was a world that I thought had long left me behind but thanks to Microsoft and Xbox I’m
right back in the game!

Free Smart Home solution: OpenHAB

Screen shot of Openhab UI

OpenHAB is a free and open source solution for the smart home.  In the quickly growing smart home market, the industry has come up with a vast number of standards, protocols and products, for example, Apple HomeKit, Amazon Echo or Google Home. They usually don’t integrate well together as there is hardly any interoperability across vendors.  Also, the only thing they connect to is their respective cloud service, which could mean a typical smart home may depend on many remote servers. The openHAB project has attracted a large developer community, which looks at the smart home from a user perspective: This makes features like offline capability, data privacy and customisability top priorities for a smart home solution.

The good: The openHAB project makes features like offline capability, data privacy and customisability top priorities for a smart home solution.

The not so good: complicated initial setup with a steep learning curve. It presumes a level of technical competence to allow for successful setup.

The verdict: This solution for the smart home has clear benefits over current smart home solutions with regard to reliability, latency (that is, the time it takes for a signal to reach and turn on/off a device) and data privacy.


Further information: https://www.openhab.org/

Richard keeps it simple

We recently assessed a user “Richard” for an aid to make it easier to directly access his iPad. And in our journey to find a solution, we trialled the Stylus Pack from the National AT library.

 styluses suitable for a wide range of needs

Above photo and description  below are taken from the National AT Library site:

The Stylus Pack is a selection of styluses suitable for a wide range of needs. Each stylus is designed for people who have difficulty interacting with the iPad screen. Users can firmly grasp the styluses in order to use with the iPad. These items are suitable for an individual user, or a range of users with diverse needs. Features/Items Included: iPad Flex Stylus iPad Strap Stylus TBar Stylus Pogo Stylus Ball Top Stylus.

But let me begin at the beginning

Richard is non-verbal and uses the Allora communication aid daily. It is mounted onto his powered wheelchair. Richard drives his powered wheelchair with his right hand and also accesses the keyboard on the Allora with his right index finger. He has a limited range of movement of his right upper limb, but it is also his only means of access. Richard’s wheelchair does not have blue tooth capability.

Photos below by the author with consent by Richard.

Person using an Allora communication machinePerson holding onto power wheelchair joystick

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard is also a writer and accesses a PC by using the standard keyboard (positioned in a specific way on a height adjustable desk) and using mouse keys instead of an external mouse or joystick.

So this gives you an idea already that Richard has more than one way of accessing technology with his right hand. So why does he struggle with direct access on the iPad? Richard’s fingernail bed is very long. And even when his nails are at the shortest it can be it sticks over the top of his fingers. Therefore when he taps onto the screen, his nail makes contact and not his skin. This, along with very limited finger extension (he has strong flexor patterns in his wrist, metacarpal phalangeal joint and distal phalangeal joint) makes activating a touch screen very difficult/impossible.

But we wanted to try and find a solution as he has a (very old) iPad that he would love to use more as it is portable, as opposed to a PC.

Due to Richard’s limited hand function, unfortunately, none of the items in the Stylus Pack proved to be successful. The standard type pen stylus aids looked promising and the stylus we received as a freebie from the CSO in Cork is up to now the most successful. When I returned the Stylus Pack to the National AT Library I also added a CSO stylus into the pack.

standard type pen stylus

It takes great effort from Richard to maintain grip of the stylus and when it slips out of his hand he is not able to pick it up again and adjust his grip independently. Not shown on the Stylus Pack photo is also conductive thread. I did embroider his winter glove’s right index fingertip with the conductive thread but I am yet to see if this is successful. Past trials have shown limited success.

 

Richard loves his Allora and of course wants to continue to use it. It is a real workhorse. The battery lasts for long periods, it is at hand, no wifi needed and no access issues on that keyboard! But, he really longs for a more portable way and quick access to word processing, the internet and social media participation.

 

In the meantime, we have assessed Richard for a new moulded seat and powered wheelchair frame. This controls on the frame will also have blue tooth capability. I chatted to Richard about this and reminded him that he will be able to access a PC or laptop/tablet via the new powered wheelchair’s joystick. And as it is, he is toying with the idea of buying a new computer/tablet to replace the old iPad anyway.

 

So, at this stage:

* Richard continuous to use his Allora for communication.

* Uses a PC with an external keyboard to access word processing software, the internet and social media.

* Uses the CSO stylus for accessing the iPad mounted off a removable mount. This for now, it the alternative for when he is not close to a PC. Having to hold onto a stylus remains a frustrating way of access.

 

What is up next?

*Once Richard’s new powered wheelchair has been funded and issued, Richard will get used to the new joystick for driving, but also for accessing computers.

*He will continue to use his beloved Allora and PC as always.

*And after investing in a new tablet computer he will have the added bonus of accessing it via the powered wheelchair’s Bluetooth function.

The Stylus Pack is a great option to have on loan and it gives us a variety of ways to try and access a touchscreen. Unfortunately, in this case, it did not help us to come up with a solution. BUT:

We are on the right track and without having been able to trial the options, we would never have known.

Therefore the National AT Library remains a great resource!

 

Gerlene Kennedy, Senior Occupational Therapist

Enable Ireland Adult Services, Little Island

Co. Cork

 

 

Startability: for people with disabilities who are interested in entrepreneurship

Startability Line Up

List of participants in Startability Event

StartAbility is an event for people with disabilities who are interested in entrepreneurship. It is organised by waytoB, Rehab Group and L’Arche, as part of Startup Week Dublin.
The event aims to inform, support and inspire people with disabilities who want to start their own business, by showcasing success stories and having an informative panel about the first steps to become an entrepreneur.
The event will take place at Zendesk, located in 55 Charlemont Place, on the 20th of November, from 6pm to 8:30pm.

Agenda:
6:00 to 6:30 Registration & Networking
6:30 to 6:35 Opening
6:35 to 6:50 Ailbhe Keane & Izzy Keane, co-founders of Izzy Wheels
6:50 to 7:05 Adam Harris, founder and CEO of AsIAm
7:05 to 7:20 Fireside chat with speakers
7:20 to 8:00 Panel discussion with Gerry Ellis, Niamh Malone, Fionn Angus and Matt McCann
8:00 to 8:30 Networking

About the speakers:
Ailbhe Keane & Izzy Keane (Twitter: @izzy_wheels)
Izzy Wheels are a brand of stylish wheel covers for wheelchairs created by Irish sisters Ailbhe and Izzy Keane. Their mission statement is ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out!’. It all began as a final year art college project for Ailbhe in 2016 and has since exploded into a global brand.

Adam Harris (Twitter: @AdamPHarris)
Adam is the founder and CEO of AsIAm, having set up the organisation based on his own experiences growing up as a young autistic person in Ireland. AsIAm aims to give autistic people a voice and starting a national conversation. Over the past five years, Adam has played an incredibly important role in building a more autism-aware and understanding Ireland.

Gerry Ellis (Twitter: @gellisie)
Gerry is blind and is an accessibility and usability consultant under the name Feel The BenefIT. He has worked for over 35 years as a Software Engineer and Mainframe Technical Specialist at Bank of Ireland and is a Fellow of the Irish Computer Society. He was a founder member and first Chairperson of the Visually Impaired Computer Society (VICS) and a founder member of the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD). Gerry spoke at the 2018 Inspirefest conference about using technology to develop a more inclusive world.

Niamh Malone (Twitter: @BraineyApp)
Niamh used to work as a clinical nurse specialist in stroke rehabilitation and had a life threatening rare type of stroke called a sub arachnoid hemorrhage, which changed her life instantly. She now lives with ongoing cognitive impairments and chronic fatigue. Based on her own personal experiences, Niamh created Fatigue Friend, which is a smartphone app that prevents full blown episodes of chronic fatigue through a series of alerts based on recognising the early warning stages of fatigue onset.

Fionn Crombie Angus (Twitter: @fionnathan)
Fionn is the co-founder and CEO of the social enterprise Fionnathan Productions. Fionn, who has Down Syndrome, always had a passion for filming, music, nature and a love for life. Fionnathan is a collaboration between Fionn and his father, Jonathan Angus. Through music, live presentations, videos, and visual arts, they seek to collaborate with diverse people who are passionate about what they do.

Matt McCann (Twitter: @Access_Earth)
Matt McCann is the CEO and founder of Access. Matt has Cerebral Palsy and has struggled with accessibility challenges his entire life. He used his Masters in Software Engineering to create a platform that people could use to easily access accessibility information and upload their own feedback on places they had visited.

Please note: the venue is fully accessible for wheelchairs. Pizza and drinks will be provided, with vegetarian options available.

CHAT – “AT in Education”

Logo for CHAT community hub for assistive technology

CHAT event

The next CHAT event run by FreedomTech will be hosted at University College Cork, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Monday 3rd December at 11.00am.  This December CHAT will be themed “AT in Education”.

CHAT (Community Hub for Accessible Technology) is a Community of Practice of Assistive Technology Service Providers, Assistive Technology Users, Researchers, Funders, Suppliers and Makers that connects the Assistive Technology sector in Ireland.  CHAT is run by FreedomTech, a partnership between Enable Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland.

CHAT is your place to share, listen, learn and build partnerships with others who are interested in supporting independence through the use of technology.  The Disability Federation of Ireland and Enable Ireland have produced an AT Discussion Paper to prompt discussion and action on a more comprehensive national Assistive Technology ecosystem.

If there is anything you think should be added to the programme that would be of interest, please get in touch. Don’t forget the Shout Outs as this gives you the opportunity to share or make any announcements on the day.  Contact the organiser: Sarah Boland: Sarah@freedomtech.ie

Other upcoming events:

November 1st  Jaws 19 Online Training Session 7:00 pm UK
http://www.sightandsound.co.uk/blog/announcing-our-first-free-online-training-session-in-jaws-2019

November 2nd – 5th – HackAccessDublin http://www.hackaccessdublin.ie

Tobii buys SmartBox – What might this mean for computer access and AAC?

Big news (in the AT world anyway) may have arrived in your mail box early last week. It was announced that leading AAC and Computer Access manufacturer Tobii purchased SmartBox AT (Sensory Software), developers of The Grid 3 and Look2Learn. As well as producing these very popular software titles, SmartBox were also a leading supplier of a range of AAC and Computer Access hardware, including their own GridPad and PowerPad ranges. Basically (in this part of the world at least) they were the two big guns in this area of AT, between them accounting for maybe 90% of the market. An analogy using soft drink companies would be that this is like Coca-Cola buying Pepsi.

Before examining what this takeover (or amalgamation?) means to their customers going forward it is worth looking back at what each company has historically done well. This way we can hopefully provide a more optimistic future for AT users rather than the future offered by what might be considered a potential monopoly.

Sensory Software began life in 2000 from the spare bedroom of founder Paul Hawes. Paul had previously worked for AbilityNet and had 13 years’ experience working in the area of AT. Early software like GridKeys and The Grid had been very well received and the company continued to grow. In 2006 they setup Smartbox to concentrate on complete AAC systems while sister company Sensory Software concentrated on developing software. In 2015 both arms of the company joined back together under the SamrtBox label. By this time their main product, the Grid 3, had established itself as a firm favourite with Speech and Language Therapists (SLT), for the wide range of communication systems it supported and Occupational Therapists and AT Professionals for its versatility in providing alternative input options to Windows and other software. Many companies would have been satisfied with providing the best product on the market however there were a couple of other areas where SmartBox also excelled. They may not have been the first AT software developers to harness the potential resources of their end users (they also may have been, I would need to research that further) but they were certainly the most successful. They succeeded in creating a strong community around the Grid 2 & 3 with a significant proportion of the online grids available to download being user generated. Their training and support was also second to none. Regular high quality training events were offered throughout Ireland and the UK. Whether by email, phone or the chat feature on their website their support was always top quality also. Their staff clearly knew their product inside out, responses were timely and they were always a pleasure to deal with.

Tobii have been around since 2001. The Swedish firm actually started with eyegaze, three entrepreneurs – John Elvesjö, MĂĄrten Skogö and Henrik Eskilsson recognised the potential of eye tracking as an input method for people with disabilities. In 2005 they released the MyTobii P10, the world’s first computer with built-in eye tracking (and I’ve no doubt there are still a few P10 devices still in use). What stood out about the P10 was the build quality of the hardware, it was built like a tank. While Tobii could be fairly criticized for under specifying their all-in-one devices in terms of Processor and Memory, the build quality of their hardware is always top class. Over the years Tobii have grown considerably, acquiring Viking Software AS (2007), Assistive Technology Inc. (2008) and DynaVox Systems LLC (2014). They have grown into a global brand with offices around the world. As mentioned above, Tobii’s main strength is that they make good hardware. In my opinion they make the best eye trackers and have consistently done so for the last 10 years. Their AAC software has also come on considerably since the DynaVox acquisition. While Communicator always seemed to be a pale imitation of the Grid (apologies if I’m being unfair, but certainly true in terms of its versatility and ease of use for computer access) it has steadily being improving. Their newer Snap + Core First AAC software has been a huge success and for users just looking for communication solution would be an attractive option over the more expensive (although much fuller featured) Grid 3. Alongside Snap + Core they have also brought out a “Pathways” companion app. This app is designed to guide parents, care givers and communication partners in best practices for engaging Snap + Core First users. It supports the achievement of communication goals through video examples, lesson plans, interactive goals grid for tracking progress, and a suite of supporting digital and printable materials. A really useful resource which will help to empower parents and prove invaluable to those not lucky enough to have regular input from an SLT.

To sum things up. We had two great companies, both with outstanding products. I have recommended the combination of the Grid software and a Tobii eye tracker more times than I remember. The hope is that Tobii can keep the Grid on track and incorporate the outstanding support and communication that was always an integral part of SmartBox’s operation. With the addition of their hardware expertise and recent research driven progress in the area of AAC, there should be a lot to look forward to in the future.

If you are a Grid user and you have any questions or concerns about this news, true to form, the communication lines are open. There is some information at this link and at the bottom of the page you can submit your question.

Microsoft announces new Xbox Adaptive Controller for players with disabilities

Xbox controller designed for people with disabilitiesMicrosoft has announced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, an Xbox controller designed for people with disabilities. It has two large programmable buttons and 19 jacks that can be connected to a range of joysticks, buttons, and switches to make it easier for a wider range of people to play games on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. This is an exciting development and has the potential to radically transform the gaming experiences of individuals with different access needs.

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