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.

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology

There is of course some cross over between the different AT highlights of 2016 I have included here. An overall theme running through all the highlights this year is the mainstreaming of AT. Apple, Google and Microsoft have all made significant progress in the areas previously mentioned: natural language understanding and smart homes. This has led to easier access to computing devices and through them the ability to automate and remotely control devices and services that assist us with daily living tasks around the house. However these developments are aimed at the mainstream market with advantages to AT users being a welcome additional benefit. What I want to look at here are the features they are including in their mainstream products specifically aimed at people with disabilities with the goal of making their products more inclusive. Apple have always been strong in this area and have lead the way now for the last five years. 2016 saw them continue this fine work with new features such as Dwell within MacOS and Touch Accommodations in iOS 10 as well as many other refinements of already existing features.  Apple also along with Siri have brought Switch Control to Apple TV either using a dedicated Bluetooth switch or through a connected iOS device in a method they are calling Platform Switching. Platform Switching which also came out this year with iOS 10 “allows you to use a single device to operate any other devices you have synced with your iCloud account. So you can control your Mac directly from your iPhone or iPad, without having to set up your switches on each new device” (need to be on the same WiFi network). The video below from Apple really encapsulates how far they have come in this area and how important this approach is.

Not to be outdone Microsoft bookended 2016 with some great features in the area of literacy support, an area they had perhaps neglected for a while. They more than made up for this last January with the announcement of Learning Tools for OneNote. I’m not going to go into details of what Learning Tools offers as I have covered it in a previous post. All I’ll say is that it is free, it works with OneNote (also free and a great note taking and organisation support in its own right) and is potentially all many students would need by way of literacy support (obviously some students may need additional supports). Then in the fourth quarter of the year they updated their OCR app Office Lens for iOS to provide the immersive reader (text to speech) directly within the app.

Finally Google who would probably have the weakest record of the big 3 in terms of providing inbuilt accessibility features (to be fair they always followed a different approach which proved to be equally effective) really hit a home run with their Voice Access solution which was made available for beta testing this year. Again I have discussed this in a previous post here where you can read about it in more detail. Having tested it I can confirm that it gives complete voice access to all Android devices features as well as any third party apps I tested. Using a combination of direct voice commands (Open Gmail, Swipe left, Go Home etc.) and a system of numbering buttons and links, even obscure apps can be operated. The idea of using numbers for navigation while not new is extremely appropriate in this case, numbers are easily recognised regardless of voice quality or regional accent. Providing alternative access and supports to mainstream Operating Systems is the corner stone of recent advances in AT. As the previous video from Apple showed, access to smartphones or computers gives access to a vast range of services and activities. For example inbuilt accessibility features like Apple’s Switch Control   or Google’s Voice Access open up a range of mainstream Smart Home and security devices and services to people with alternative access needs where before they would have to spend a lot more for a specialist solution that would have probably been inferior.

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.

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.