Makers Making Change – Canada provides $750,000 to fund development of Open Source AT

Makers Making Change have a mission, to “connect makers to people with disabilities who need assistive technologies”. This is also our mission and something we’ve talked about before, it is also the goal of a number of other projects including TOM Global and Enable Makeathon. Makers Making Change which is being run by Canadian NGO the Neil Squire Society and supported by Google.org differs from previous projects sharing the same goal in a couple of ways. Firstly their approach. They are currently concentrating their efforts on one particular project, the LipSync and touring the North American continent holding events where groups of Makers get together and build a quantity of these devices. These events are called Buildathons. This approach both raises awareness about their project within the maker community while also ensuring they have plenty of devices in stock, ready to go out to anybody who needs them. Secondly, thanks to the recent promise from the Canadian government of funding to the tune of $750,000 they may be on the verge of bringing their mission into the mainstream.

Canada have always had a well-deserved reputation for being at the forefront of Assistive Technology and Accessibility. It is one of only a handful of nations the rest of the world look to for best practice approaches in the area of disability. For that reason this funding announced by Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Carla Qualtrough may have a positive effect even greater than its significant monetary value, and far beyond Canada’s borders. Minster Qualtrough stated the funding was “for the development of a network of groups and people with technical skills to support the identification, development, testing, dissemination and deployment of open source assistive technologies.” Specifying that it is Open Source assistive technologies they will be developing and disseminating means that any solutions identified will have the potential to be reproduced by makers anywhere in the world. It is also interesting that the funding is to support the development of a network of groups and people rather than specific technologies, the goal here being sustainability. Neil Squire Society Executive Director, Gary Birch said “This funding is instrumental in enabling the Neil Squire Society to develop, and pilot across Canada, an innovative open source model to produce and deliver hardware-based assistive technologies to Canadians with disabilities. Hopefully this forward thinking move by the Canadian Government will inspire some EU governments into promoting and maybe even funding similar projects over here.

What is the LipSync?

The Lipsync is an Open Source Sip&Puff low force joystick that can enable access to computers or mobile devices for people without the use of their hands. Sound familiar? If you are a regular reader of this blog you are probably thinking about the FlipMouse, they are similar devices. I haven’t used the LipSync but from what I’ve read it offers slightly less functionality than the Flipmouse but this may make it more suitable for some users. Take a look at the video below.

If you want to know more about LipSync have a look at their project page on Hackaday.io where you will find build instructions, bill of materials, code and user manual.

If the idea of building or designing a technology that could enhance the life of someone with a disability or an older person appeals to you, either head down to your local maker space (Ireland, Global) or set a date in your diary for Ireland’s premier Maker Faire – Dublin Maker which will take place in Merrion Square, Dublin 4 on Saturday July 22nd. We’ll be there showing the FlipMouse as well as some of our more weird and wonderful music projects. There will also be wild, exciting and inspiring demonstrations and projects from Maker Spaces/Groups and Fab Labs from around the country and beyond. See here for a list of those taking part. 

FlipMouse – Powerful, open and low cost computer access solution

The FLipMouse (Finger- and Lip mouse) is a computer input device intended to offer an alternative for people with access difficulties that prevent them using a regular mouse, keyboard or touchscreen. It is designed and supported by the Assistive Technology group at the UAS Technikum Wien (Department of Embedded Systems) and funded by the City of Vienna (ToRaDes project and AsTeRICS Academy project). The device itself consists of a low force (requires minimal effort to operate) joystick that can be controlled with either the lips, finger or toe. The lips are probably the preferred access method as the FlipMouse also allows sip and puff input.

man using a mounted flipmouse to access a laptop computer

Sip and Puff is an access method which is not as common in Europe as it is in the US however it is an ideal way to increase the functionality of a joystick controlled by lip movement. See the above link to learn more about sip and puff but to give a brief explanation, it uses a sensor that monitors the air pressure coming from a tube. A threshold can be set (depending on the user’s ability) for high pressure (puff) and low pressure (sip). Once this threshold is passed it can act as an input signal like a mouse click, switch input or keyboard press among other things. The Flipmouse also has two jack inputs for standard ability switches as well as Infrared in (for learning commands) and out (for controlling TV or other environmental controls). All these features alone make the Flipmouse stand out against similar solutions however that’s not what makes the Flipmouse special.

Open Source

The Flipmouse is the first of a new kind of assistive technology (AT) solution, not because of what it does but because of how it’s made. It is completely Open Source which means that everything you need to make this solution for yourself is freely available. The source code for the GUI (Graphical User Interface) which is used to configure the device and the code for the microcontroller (TeensyLC), bill of materials listing all the components and design files for the enclosure are all available on their GitHub page. The quality of the documentation distinguishes it from previous Open Source AT devices. The IKEA style assembly guide clearly outlines the steps required to put the device together making the build not only as simple as some of the more advanced Lego kits available but also as enjoyable. That said, unlike Lego this project does require reasonable soldering skills and a steady hand, some parts are tricky enough to keep you interested. The process of constructing the device also gives much better insight into how it works which is something that will undoubtedly come in handy should you need to troubleshoot problems at a later date. Although as stated above Asterics Academy provide a list of all components a much better option in my opinion would be to purchase the construction kit which contains everything you need to build your own FlipMouse, right down to the glue for the laser cut enclosure, all neatly packed into a little box (pictured below). The kit costs €150 and all details are available from the FlipMouse page on the Asterics Academy site. Next week I will post some video demonstrations of the device and look at the GUI which allows you program the FlipMouse as a computer input device, accessible game controller or remote control.

FlipMouse construction kit in box

I can’t overstate how important a development the FlipMouse could be to the future of Assistive Technology. Giving communities the ability to build and support complex AT solutions locally not only makes them more affordable but also strengthens the connection between those who have a greater requirement for technology in their daily life and those with the creativity, passion and in-depth knowledge of emerging technologies, the makers. Here’s hoping the FlipMouse is the first of many projects to take this approach.

The Big Life Fix

Just when we thought 2016 couldn’t get any better (in an AT sense) BBC make a prime time TV show with a huge focus on the design and construction of bespoke AT solutions. Although aired in December on BBC due to regional restrictions it’s not available to many on this side of the Irish Sea on iPlayer so you may not have had the chance to see full episodes yet. The good news is full episodes are beginning to make their way onto YouTube and are well worth a look. The general theme of the Big Life Fix would be how technology has the power to improve lives. Although not just about what we call assistive technology, it is more broad in scope covering many different types of technology challenge with the goal of democratising and demystifying solutions. AT does play a big part in many of the challenges however.

The first episode (a clip of which I’ve embedded below) introduces us to James, a young photographer who is having difficulty operating his SLR camera. The solution created for James features all the exciting technology and techniques being utilised every day by Makers around the world: Arduino microprocessor, 3D printing, AppInventor as well as some good old fashioned hardware hacking. The iterative nature of the design process is well illustrated with James critically evaluating the initial prototype and providing insights which significantly change the direction of the design.The other AT related challenge in this first episode features a graphic designer called Emma who due to tremors which are a symptom of her Parkinson’s, is unable to draw or sign her name. After a number of prototypes and lots of research a very clever solution is arrived at which seems to be extremely effective, leading to a rather emotional scene (have the hankies ready).

The Big Life Fix beautifully portrays both the potential of AT to improve the quality of life as well as the personal satisfaction a maker might get from participating in a successful solution. I can see this show sowing the seeds for a strong and equitable future for assistive technology.

Finally, the icing on the cake is that all the solutions featured on the show are Open Source with all the source code, design files and build notes that were used to print, shape and operate the solutions publicly available on GitHub. Nice work BBC. Take a look at the clip below (UPDATE: Full Episodes now on YouTube. Not sure how long they will stay there though).

2016 – Technology Trends and Assistive Technology (AT) Highlights

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the year from an AT perspective. A lot happened in 2016, not all good. Socially, humanity seems to have regressed over the past year. Maybe this short term, inward looking protectionist sentiment has been brewing longer but 2016 brought the opportunity to express politically, you know the rest. While society steps and looks back technology continues to leap and bound forward and 2016 has seen massive progress in many areas but particularly areas associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes. This is the first in a series of posts examining some technology trends of 2016 and a look at how they affect the field of Assistive Technology. The links will become active as the posts are added. If I’m missing something please add it to the comments section.

Dawn of the Personal Digital Assistants

Game Accessibility

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology 

Software of the Year – The Grid 3

Open Source AT Hardware and Software

The Big Life Fix

So although 2016 is unlikely to be looked on kindly by future historians… you know why; it has been a great year for Assistive Technology, perhaps one of promise rather than realisation however. One major technology trend of 2016 missing from this series posts is Virtual (or Augmented) Reality. While VR was everywhere this year with products coming from Sony, Samsung, Oculus and Microsoft its usefulness beyond gaming is only beginning to be explored (particularly within Education).

So what are the goals for next year? Well harnessing some of these innovations in a way where they can be made accessible and usable by people with disabilities at an affordable price. If in 2017 we can start putting some of this tech into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from its use, then next year will be even better.

From LOMAK to MILO – Good ideas are never obsolete

One of the more dubious advantages of working in a long running Assistive Technology service is access to an ever growing supply of obsolete hardware. While much of it is worthless junk now considering the technological progress in the field over the last 10 years, there are some real gems to be rediscovered. These were innovative solutions of their time grounded in strong research and while being seemingly made obsolete by a newer technology actually still have much to offer. The LOMAK keyboard is certainly one of these and being possibly the only piece of AT on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art I’m obviously not alone in thinking this.

top picture showing a man using the LOMAK keyboard with a laptop computer. bottom picture shows the layout of the LOMAK keyboard. Three rings, large centre ring for letters, right ring numbers, left ring symbols

The LOMAK (Light Operated Mouse And Keyboard) was invented by New Zealander Mike Watling and first came on the market in 2005 after a number of years research. It allowed hands free computer access through the innovative use of a laser pointer and light sensitive keyboard and mouse controls. To make the light sensitive keyboard and mouse (I’ll call it an input device from here) Watling used an array or photoresistors, one for each keyboard, mouse action and setting. This amounted to a whopping 122 photoresistors and possibly the most electronically complex input device ever marketed. Although complex the idea behind the LOMAK is quite straight forward. Photoresistors change their resistance depending on the amount of light they are picking up. Once you figure out roughly how much shining a laser pen on the resistor changes its value you have a good idea of where to set your threshold. You can then use the photo-resistor as a straightforward momentary switch, like a keyboard key, that activates once the resistance goes above/below a certain threshold. If you are like me you will want to see inside this thing so here it is.. (Below), a thing of beauty I’m sure you’ll agree.

The LOMAK keyboard opened out to reveal the photo-resistors and the circuit board.

So why aren’t more people using LOMAK keyboards today? Well eye tracking technology was just starting to become a realistic possibility for AT users with devices like the Tobii P10 hitting the market.  Eye tracking just made more sense for computer access, it allows a neater more mobile solution and it a more direct input method. What has given the whole concept behind the LOMAK a new lease of life is the availability of cheap user-friendly prototyping platforms like Arduino.
This was the basis of one of the project proposals we made available to the final year students of the BSc (Honours) Creative Media Technologies course in IADT. Over the last few years Enable Ireland AT service have worked with IADT lecturer Conor Brennan to provide students with a selection of project briefs that both fit with their learning and skills while also fulfilling a need that has been recognised through our work supporting AT users and professionals in the area. This particular brief was to create a MIDI interface based on the same concept as the LOMAK that would allow someone to perform and compose music using only head movements. There are solutions available that use eye tracking to achieve this, for example the fantastic EyeHarp and more recently Ruud van der Wel of My Breath My Music released his Eye Play Music  software. However these solutions all require a computer, we wanted something that was more in keeping with current trends in mainstream electronic music which seems to be moving back to a more hardware based performance. Thankfully a particularly talented student by the name of Rudolf Triebel took on the challenge of designing and building what we are now calling the MILO (Musical Interface using Laser Operation) (previously called LOMI Light Operated MIDI Interface which I think is much better..:). Rudolf exceeded our expectations and created the prototype you can see in the (badly filmed, sorry) video below. He has also created a tutorial including wiring diagram, code and bill of materials and put it up on Instructables to allow the project to be replicated and improved by others.

If you would like to see and maybe have a go of the MILO prototype (in its spanking new laser cut enclosure) Conor Brennan of IADT will be showing and demonstrating it at the 25th EAN Conference which takes place in University College Dublin between Sunday 29th – Tuesday 31st May.
Keep an eye on electroat.com where I hope to add a few more detailed posts on building, modifying and increasing the functionality of Rudolf’s design. I will also look into the possibility of using the same concept for building a hands free video game controller.

Flipmouse – Open Source computer input device

The Flipmouse (pictured above and below) is one of the outcomes of the AsteRICS project. AsTeRICS (Assistive Technology Rapid Integration & Construction Set) – (asterics.eu) – was an EU funded project that ran from 2010 to 2013 whose goal was to create a free and Open-Source construction set for assistive technologies (AT).  We will look at the AsTeRICS software in more detail in a later post, this post is concerned with an innovative open source alternative computer input device called the Flipmouse whose complete build instructions will soon be available on the related AsTeRICS Academy site
(asterics-academy.net/).
Flipmouse showing 1)Reset switch (for software updates) 2)Internal switch (Button1) Man using Flipmouse to control a computer

The FLipMouse – alternative computer input device is a combined Joystick, Spi&puff and Switch interface. By combining three established input methods in one device this innovative computer access solution could offer efficient computer access to a range of people with significant physical disabilities.

Labeled photo of Flipmouse: “Hygienic Stick”, can be used with fingers or as a mouthpiece. 3 indicator LEDs (red, yellow, green) 3.5mm jack plug connectors for external switches (Button2 and Button3)

The hardware features of the FLipMouse include (taken from Flipmouse User Manual) :

  • “Zero-way”-joystick (requires very little force to operate) / mouthpiece:
    • very low forces are sufficient to create up/down/left/right movement.
    • can be used with fingers or toes etc.
    • can also be used as a mouthpiece (actuated by lips / mouth movements).
    • If desired, sip / puff activities into the mouthpiece can trigger additional functions.
  • One function selection switch, to change the active configuration of function.
  • Two 3.5mm jack plug sockets for attaching external switches to trigger additional functions.
  • 3 Indicator Leds for showing the active configuration, calibration procedure etc.
  • Additional upgrade modules for future extensions (e.g. universal infrared remote control).
  • Firmware upgrade via Arduino IDE (the reset button is only needed for this purpose).

Users can interact with the FLipMouse in several ways:

  • by touching the mouthpiece with the lips or fingers and applying small forces in vertical or horizontal direction.
  • by increasing or reducing pressure in the mouthpiece (puffing or sipping).
  • by actuating (up to) 3 momentary switches.
  • if desired, a longer plastic tube can be attached to the pressure sensor so that the joystick can be used with a finger and a separate mouthpiece allows sip/puff control.
  • With the FlipMouse GUI application, the functional mappings of the user interactions to desired mouse- or keyboard activities can be defined and stored in the FLipMouse’s memory. The settings stay saved also when the power supply / USB cable is removed. When the FLipMouse is plugged in the next time, the settings will be available – also if you use another computer or operating system.

The FLipMouse offers multiple internal memory slots to store different functional mappings that can be used with different applications or tasks.

Detailed build instructions should be available soon from the following URL however the software and user manual can be downloaded now.  asterics-academy.net/tools/flip