Route4U – Accessible route planning

Tamas and Peter from route4u.org called in last week to tell us about their accessible route finding service. Based on Open Street Maps, Route4u allows users to plan routes that are appropriate to their level and method of mobility. Available on iOS, Android and as a web app at route4u.org/maps, Route4u is the best accessible route planning solution I have seen. Where a service like Mobility Mojo gives detailed accessibility information on destinations (business, public buildings), route4u concentrates more on the journey, making them complementary services. When first setting up the app you will be given the option to select either pram, active wheelchair, electronic wheelchair, handbike or walking (left screenshot below). You can further configure your settings later in the accessibility menu selecting curb heights and maximum slopes etc. (right screenshot below)

Accessibility screen shot featuring settings like maximum slope or curb height

Further configure your settings in Accessibility

select you vehicle screen - see text above

You are first asked to select your mobility method

This is great but so far nothing really groundbreaking, we have seen services like this before. Forward thinking cities with deep pockets like London and Ontario have had similar accessibility features built into their public transport route planners for the last decade. That is a lot easier to achieve however because you are dealing with a finite number of route options. Where Route4u is breaking new ground is that it facilitates this level of planning throughout an entire city. It does this by using the technology built into smartphones to provide crowdsourced data that constantly updates the maps. If you are using a wheelchair or scooter the sensors on your smartphone can measure the level of vibration experienced on a journey. This data is sent back to route4u who use it to estimate the comfort experienced on that that journey, giving other users access to even more information on which to base their route choice. The user doesn’t have to do anything, they are helping to improve the service by simply using it. Users can also more proactively improve the service by marking obstacles they encounter on their journey. The obstacle can be marked as temporary or permanent. Temporary obstacles like road works or those ubiquitous sandwich boards that litter our pavements will remain on the map helping to inform the accessibility of the route until another user confirms they have been removed and enters that information.

Example of obstacle added by user - pictusr of curb that may not be accessible to wheelchair

Example of obstacle added by user –

Example of obstacle added by user - picture of gate which would not be accessible to wheelchair

Example of obstacle added by user

If you connect route4u to your FaceBook account you get access to a points based reward system. This allows you compete with friends and have your own league table. In Budapest where they are already well established they have linked with sponsors who allow you cash points in for more tangible rewards like a free breakfast or refreshment. These gamification features should help encourage users less inclined towards altruism to participate and that is key. Route4u when established relies on its users to keep information up to date. This type of service based on crowdsourced data is a proven model, particularly in the route planning sphere. It’s a bit of a catch 22 however as a service needs to be useful first to attract users. It is early days for Route4u in Dublin and Tamas and Peter acknowledge that a lot of work needs to be done before promoting the service here. Over the next few months their team will begin mapping Dublin city centre, this way, when they launch there will be the foundation of an accessible route finding service which people can use, update and build upon. While route4u has obvious benefits for end users with mobility difficulties there is another beneficiary of the kind of data this service will generate. Tamas and Peter were also keen to point out how this information could be used by local authorities to identify where infrastructure improvements are most needed and where investment will yield the most return. In the long run this will help Dublin and her residents tackle the accessibility problem from both sides making it a truly smart solution.

map showing blue, green and red routes

Area that has been mapped

Legend showing levels of accessibility

Legend showing levels of accessibility

 

Distraction-free studying!

We all know what it’s like being in school when the sun is shining outside and all you can think about is being out there!  Or when you’re trying to get your homework done and all you can think about is who’s posting what on Snapchat or Instagram?  Or have you ever found yourself managing to get a study block done and then taking a well-deserved 5-minute break to take a peek at social media, only to emerge from your phone a half an hour later and way behind on your study schedule?  Well, the following free apps are for you! In fact, they’re for anyone who wants to use their time on their computer or smartphone more productively, whether you’re a student or not.

 

Stay Focused

Screenshot of Stay Focused web appStay Focused is a free google chrome extension that helps you to stay focused on your work by stopping you from looking at time-wasting websites (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter).  You set a certain amount of time in the day that you’re allowed to look at those distracting websites and then once your allotted time for the day has been used up, it blocks you out of them.  End of distractions!  You can also choose to have a complete block on the websites that are your major culprits for time-wasting.

 

Leech Block

Screenshot of Leech Block web app

This one works in a similar way to Stay Focused but it’s for the Mozilla Firefox browser instead of Chrome.  You can specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set (e.g. you could have Twitter blocked from 9am to 5pm and Facebook blocked for all but 10 minutes in every hour).

 

Strict Workflow

Screenshot of Strict Workflow web appThis is one of many apps that use the timing principle behind the Pomodoro Technique (i.e. you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, then after four of these sessions you can take a longer break of 15-30mins).  This Google Chrome extension helps you to concentrate on your work by blocking a list of websites for the amount of time you’ve set and once your working period is over, it’ll unblock those sites to give you a break from work before you hit those books again!

 

Offtime

Screenshot of Offtime phone app

Offtime is an app for iOS and Android smartphones that not only lets you block calls, texts and notifications when you’re trying to work, but it can also track your phone and app usage so you can identify what distracts you most.  You can set different profiles, like School, Family and Me Time and when you’re finished your work, it gives you an activity log with a list of everything that happened while you were working so you don’t have to worry about missing out on anything.

So, with these apps you’ll be able to maximise your study time and even better, you’ll be able to look at all your favourite websites and apps guilt-free on your breaks!

Study Time!

person studying with booksIt’s that time of year again for students – heading back into schools and colleges, or perhaps you are a mature student, thinking of dipping your toe back into education and gaining qualifications or pursuing interests. You may be considering starting your study regime early, rather than leaving everything to the last minute, in the days and weeks leading up to exams! In that case, we may have some ideas below for helping to create study materials and finding resources online to assist with your plans! All of the resources mentioned below are free, but may have paid components to unlock further features.

StudyNotes collaborative websiteFirst up is www.studynotes.ie . This is a collaborative website, aimed specifically at Junior and Leaving Certificate students. Revision notes can be downloaded on practically all subjects at both levels, and you can also share your own notes as well. The website includes the tools to create your own flashcards and quizzes, which you can also share. Blog posts and videos on relevant topics can also be viewed. In addition, there is a forum to post questions and reply to others seeking advice. Also included are a notebook section to compile your own notes and a study planner to help make the most of your time.

goconqr repository of resourceswww.goconqr.com is a similar website to the above, in that it is a repository of resources, and once you sign in and create a profile, will give content specific to the Irish curriculum. As well as notes, you can create, share or download mind maps, flowcharts and slides on specific topics. Self-correcting flashcards and quizzes can also be created. It allows you to connect with friends and groups, providing a network to support your learning.
Khan academy repositoryKhan academy, while not specifically aimed at Irish second or third level educational institutions, has a substantial repository on a range of topics. For example Maths, Arts and Humanities, Science and Engineering and Economics and Finance are covered. As you work your way through the content, progress is recoded and you can also take practice tests along the way to ensure your comprehension of materials.
Quizlet webpage resources
Quizlet.com gives you the ability to search for resources as well as create and share your own. Mainly based on a flashcard type of structure, you have the ability to test yourself or play games using your own materials.

Some other resources that might be of use include:
TEDTalks (TEd.com) are a very useful and entertaining way of gaining information on a wide range of topics.
Scoil.net contains resources specific to the second level curriculum, while Schooldays.ie has information about exams, tips and advice.
OReillymaths.ie has videos on maths, explaining concepts and working out solutions.
Focal.ie is useful in translating Irish, while An Gramadoir (https://borel.slu.edu/gramadoir/form.html) will check grammar.

Hopefully these resources will help get your academic year off to a good start and assist in achieving your best!.

Hands-free Minecraft from Special Effect

Love it or hate it, the game of Minecraft has captured the imagination of over 100 million young, and not so young people. It is available on multiple platforms; mobile device (Pocket Edition), Raspberry Pi, Computer, Xbox or PlayStation and it looks and feels pretty much the same on all. For those of us old enough to remember, the blocky graphics will hold some level of nostalgia for the bygone 8 Bit days when mere blobs of colour and our imagination were enough to render Ghosts and Goblins vividly. This is almost certainly lost on the main cohort of Minecraft players however who would most probably be bored silly with the 2 dimensional repetitive and predictable video games of the 80’s and early 90’s. The reason Minecraft is such a success is that it has blended its retro styling with modern gameplay and a (mind bogglingly massive) open world where no two visits are the same and there is room for self-expression and creativity. This latter quality has lead it to become the first video game to be embraced by mainstream education, being used as a tool for teaching everything from history to health or empathy to economics. It is however the former quality, the modern gameplay, that we are here to talk about. Unlike the afore mentioned Ghosts and Goblins, Minecraft is played in a 3 dimensional world using either the first person perspective (you see through the characters eyes) or third person perspective (like a camera is hovering above and slightly behind the character). While undoubtedly offering a more immersive and realistic experience, this means controlling the character and playing the game is also much more complex and requires a high level of dexterity in both hands to be successful. For people without the required level of dexterity this means that not only is there a risk of social exclusion, being unable to participate in an activity so popular among their peers, but also the possibility of being excluded within an educational context.

Fortunately UK based charity Special Effect have recognised this need and are in the process doing something about it. Special Effect are a charity dedicated to enabling those with access difficulties play video games through custom access solutions. Since 2007 their interdisciplinary team of clinical and technical professionals (and of course gamers) have been responsible for a wide range of bespoke solutions based on individuals’ unique abilities and requirements. Take a look at this page for some more information on the work they do and to see what a life enhancing service they provide. The problem with this approach of course is reach, which is why their upcoming work on Minecraft is so exciting. Based on the Open Source eyegaze AAC/Computer Access solution Optikey by developer Julius Sweetland, Special Effect are in the final stages of developing an on-screen Minecraft keyboard that will work with low cost eye trackers like the Tobii Eye X and the Tracker 4C (€109 and €159 respectively).

minecraft on screen keyboard

The inventory keyboard

MineCraft on screen keyboards

The main Minecraft on screen keyboard

Currently being called ‘Minekey’ this solution will allow Minecraft to be played using a pointing device like a mouse or joystick or even totally hands free using an eyegaze device or headmouse. The availability of this application will ensure that Minecraft it now accessible to many of those who have been previously excluded. Special Effect were kind enough to let us trial a beta version of the software and although I’m no Minecraft expert it seemed to work great. The finished software will offer a choice of onscreen controls, one with smaller buttons and more functionality for expert eyegaze users (pictured above) and a more simplified version with larger targets. Bill Donegan, Projects Manager with Special Effect told us they hope to have it completed and available to download for free by the end of the year. I’m sure this news that will excite many people out there who had written off Minecraft as something just not possible for them. Keep an eye on Special Effect or ATandMe for updates on its release.

Mefacilyta Desktop app

Mefacilyta Desktop

In this podcast, Sarah Boland, together with David Deane and Áine Walsh, talk about the training they hosted on 21st June 2017 on the Mefacilyta Desktop app in St John of God in Stillorgan.

Mefacilyta Desktop is a new Android app developed by Vodafone Foundation Spain in conjunction with St John of God, which can be individually tailored to support people with intellectual disabilities to learn how to carry out their everyday activities independently.Vodafone symbol with person pointing to letter M Mefacilyta app

GazeSpeak & Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to support people with Motor Neuron Disease (ALS)

Last Friday (February 17th) New Scientist published an article about a new app in development at Microsoft called GazeSpeak. Due to be released over the coming months on iOS, GazeSpeak aims at facilitating communication between a person with MND (known as ALS in the US, I will use both terms interchangeably) and another individual, perhaps their partner, carer or friend. Developed by Microsoft intern, Xiaoyi Zhang, GazeSpeak differs from traditional approaches in a number of ways. Before getting into the details however it’s worth looking at the background, GazeSpeaker didn’t come from nowhere, it’s actually one of the products of some heavyweight research into Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) that has been taking place at Microsoft over the last few years. Since 2013, inspired by football legend and ALS sufferer Steve Gleason (read more here) Microsoft researchers and developers have put the weight of their considerable collective intellect to bear on the subject of increasing the ease and efficiency of communication for people with MND.

Last year Microsoft Research published a paper called ”
AACrobat: Using Mobile Devices to Lower Communication Barriers and Provide Autonomy with Gaze-Based AAC” (abstract and pdf download at previous link) which proposed a companion app to allow an AAC user’s communication partner assist (in an non-intrusive way) in the communication process. Take a look at the video below for a more detailed explanation.

This is an entirely new approach to increasing the efficiency of AAC and one that I suggest, could only have come from a large mainstream tech organisation who have over thirty years experience facilitating communication and collaboration.

Another Microsoft research paper published last year (with some of the same authors at the previous paper) called “Exploring the Design Space of AAC Awareness Displays” looks at importance of a communication partners “awareness of the subtle, social, and contextual cues that are necessary for people to naturally communicate in person”. There research focused on creating a display that would allow the person with ALS express things like humor, frustration, affection etc, emotions difficult to express with text alone. Yes they proposed the use of Emoji, which are a proven and effective way a similar difficulty is overcome in remote or non face to face interactions however they went much further and also looked at solutions like Avatars, Skins and even coloured LED arrays. This, like the other one above, is an academic paper and as such not an easy read but the ideas and solutions being proposed by these researchers are practical and will hopefully be filtering through to end users of future AAC solutions.

That brings us back to GazeSpeak, the first fruits of the Microsoft/Steve Gleason partnership to reach the general public. Like the AACrobat solution outlined above GazeSpeak gives the communication partner a tool rather than focusing on tech for the person with MND. As the image below illustrates the communication partner would have GazeSpeak installed on their phone and with the app running they would hold their device up to the person with MND as if they were photographing them. They suggest a sticker with four grids of letters is placed on the back of the smart phone facing the speaker. The app then tracks the persons eyes: up, down, left or right, each direction means the letter they are selecting is contained in the grid in that direction (see photo below).

man looking right, other person holding smartphone up with gazespeak installed

Similar to how the old T9 predictive text worked, GazeSpeak selects the appropriate letter from each group and predicts the word based on the most common English words. So the app is using AI in the form of machine vision to track the eyes and also to make the word prediction. In the New Scientist  article they mention that the user would be able to add their own commonly used words and people/place names which one assumes would prioritize them within the prediction list. In the future perhaps some capacity for learning could be added to further increase efficiency. After using this system for a while the speaker may not even need to see the sticker with letters, they could write words from muscle memory. At this stage a simple QR code leading to the app download would allow them to communicate with complete strangers using just their eyes and no personal technology.

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.

Accessible Apps, Games and Toys

range of children's toys

Enable Ireland’s National Assistive Technology Service has gathered together information on a range of accessible toys. It includes a variety of accessible games, apps, and toys. These are not recommendations but simply a selection of items which may be of interest, particularly at times such as Christmas and birthdays, when presents are high on the list of priorities.

Available here https://goo.gl/QpcD1z

Tap Tap See for iOS

the very cleverly named Tap Tap See is an app (you may have noticed, I like apps a lot!) which allows you to identify objects by simply taking a picture. Once you’ve taken the picture, the app searches through a huge database of objects and brand names to find a match foryour picture.  The app then tells you what it sees.

 

I tend to use it when I need quick information, such as the flavour of a tin of soup or the colour of a piece of clothing, so it’s not an app which can give a lot of detail – but the detail it can give can be remarkably accurate.

 

It does also take a little time to get used to where exactly to point the camera, especially if you’re blind from birth (as I am), but the app is free to use, so yu don’t need to worry about the number of pictures you take.

 

The app also has a handy features which allows you to use it to identify photos in your library, which I really luke if I want to put a photo on Facebook but can’t remember which one I want to use.

 

So, all in all, I’d really recommend having a play with this app.   have fun!

Hands-free access for Android

With iOS Apple have firmly established themselves as the mobile device brand of choice for those with alternative access needs. The extensive accessibility features, wide range of AT apps and third party hardware as well as iOS’ familiarity, ease of use and security, all make it a choice hard to look beyond. Yet this is exactly what many people do, 1.3 Billion Android devices were shipped in 2015, that’s 55% of all computing devices mobile or otherwise. A large majority of these would be budget smartphones or tablets purchased in developing markets where the price tag associated with Apple products could be considered prohibitive. There are however reasons other than cost to choose Android and thankfully Google have been quietly working away to give you even more. One in particular, which is currently in beta testing (click here to apply) is Voice Access. As its name suggests this new accessibility feature (and that is what it is being developed as, immediately distinguishing it from previous speech recognition apps) allows complete access to your device through voice alone. I’ll let Google describe it: “Voice Access is an accessibility service that lets you control your Android device with your voice. Using spoken commands, you can activate on-screen controls, launch apps, navigate your device, and edit text. Voice Access can be helpful for users for whom using a touch screen is difficult.” It certainly sounds promising and if these aspirations can be realised will be very welcome indeed. Voice control of mobile devices is something we are frequently asked about in Enable Ireland’s Assistive Technology Training Service. I’ll post more on Voice Access after I’ve had the opportunity to test it a bit more. In the meantime take a look at the video below to whet your appetite.

Another alternative access option now available to Android users is a third party application developed and promoted by CREA with the support of Fundación Vodafone España called EVA Facial Mouse. EVA Facial Mouse has been created by the same people who brought us Enable Viacam for Windows and Linux and seems to be a mobile version of that popular and effective camera input system. EVA uses a combination of the front facing camera and face recognition to allow the user position the cursor and click on icons without having to touch the device. See video below for more on EVA (Spanish with subtitles)

Reviews of EVA on Google Play are mostly positive with many negative reviews most probably explained by device specific incompatibilities. This remains the primary difficulty associated with the use and support of Android based devices as Assistive Technology. All Android devices are not created equally and how they handle apps can vary significantly depending on the resources they have available (CPU/RAM) and how Android features (pointing device compatibility in this case) are implemented. That said, on the right device both new access options mentioned above could mean greatly improved access efficiency for two separate user groups who have up until now had to rely primarily on switch access. Next week I will release a post reviewing current Android phones and follow that up with a couple of in-depth reviews of the above apps and their compatibility with selected Android devices and other third party AT apps like ClickToPhone.