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!

Mounting mobile phones and tablets

green plastic mount supporting mobile phone at a 70 degree angle

When we use technology we need to be able to position it so that it is easy to use. We need to be able operate the controls and have it positioned so that we can see it without eyestrain.  Sometimes it’s useful to mount a device, as our hands may be tied up doing something else; the device may be too heavy or we may even have a limited ability to reach, grasp, or hold the device.

Some of the most common items we use are mobile phones and tablets.  There are various mounting options available.  The suitability of a mount depends on various factors such as the fixing clamp, where you intend to mount the device, weight of device to be mounted, the reach and adjustability of the mount etc.

Mounting systems are generally composed of a (i)fixing clamp to mount either to a flat table top surface or a circular tubing, (ii) an adjustable arm usually no longer that 500mm (iii) some kind of attachment or cradle to hold the device.

Below are two mounting systems which may offer you some good solutions.  Ram mounts are a mainstream supplier of mounts for electronic devices within cars, bikes and trucks.  Rehadapt on the other hand, have a range of mounting products to serve clients with “special needs”. Both systems consist of a fixing clamp, adjustable arm and a cradle to hold the device.

Ram mount

In choosing a fixing clamp you need to consider the surface you are fixing it to: do you need to remove clamp often? Will the clamp be secure?  Below are two clamps however their site  offers more options.

RAM Small Tough-Claw™ with B Size 1″ Diameter Rubber Ball

RAM Small Tough-Claw™ with B Size 1" Diameter Rubber Ball$33.49

RAM Rail Base with B Size 1″ Ball. Zinc Coated U-Bolt for Rails fro…

RAM Rail Base with B Size 1" Ball. Zinc Coated U-Bolt for Rails from 0.5" to 1.25" in Diameter

$15.49

The Ram mount arms consist of various length double socket arms as well as solid and gooseneck poles that can be joined together with an adaptor.

RAM Short Double Socket Arm for B Size 1″ Balls

RAM Short Double Socket Arm for B Size 1" Balls$13.99

RAM Double Socket Arm for B Size 1″ Balls

RAM Double Socket Arm for B Size 1" Balls$13.99

RAM Medium Double Socket Arm, Dual Extension with Ball Adapter for …

RAM Medium Double Socket Arm, Dual Extension with Ball Adapter for B Size 1" Balls$39.49

At the end of the arm we need to attach the device.  Ram mounts offer various cradles for specific tablets as well as universal type options.

RAM Universal X-Grip® Cell/iPhone Cradle

RAM Universal X-Grip® mobile phone Cradle $27.99

RAM Universal X-Grip® Large Phone/Phablet Cradle

RAM Universal X-Grip® for a Large Phone or Phablet Cradle$31.49

RAM Universal X-Grip® Cradle for 10″ Large TabletsRAM Universal X-Grip® Cradle for various 10 inch Large Tablets$76

 

The good: It’s reasonably priced, with lots of component options.

The not so good: Not designed for wheelchair mounting, so you’re limited to where it can be fitted onto a wheelchair.

The verdict: A good option for anyone on a tight budget.

Rehadapt

Rehadapt has a large range of fixing clamps that will do for nearly every wheelchair.  They also have adjustable clamp options such as this one below, although they don’t fit on as securely.

L3D-TC 2QS

Light 3D Table mount with two tubes and two joints with levers

L3D-WC 1AK  and  L3D-WC 2AK

Rehadapt L3D-WC 1AK and L3D-WC 2AK

Light 3D wheelchair mount with one tube and one joint with screw.  The L3D-WC 2AK is a two pole version of this.  You can state the required wheelchair clamp on order.  Combine with any cradle with REHAdapt’s Spigot Link System (SLS).

 

Onto the end of the REHAdapt’s Spigot Link System, there a various options.  Some universal cradles are below.

L3D-GA-Universal Phone Holder M

Rehadapt L3D-GA-Universal Phone Holder M

Device adapter with Spigot Link System (SLS) for mounting Mobile Phone Medium 62-77mm * -14mm (2 1/2″-3″ * -1/2″) to REHAdapt´s Light 3D system.

GA-Tablet 7″ – 8″

Rehadapt GA-Tablet 7 – 8 inch

Generic device adapter for mounting tablets with 7“ or 8“ screen size

GA-Tablet 10″

Rehadapt GA-Tablet 10 inch

Generic device adapter for mounting tablets with 10“ screen size

The good: It looks good.  Lots of component options and excellent for mounting onto a wheelchair.

The not so good: Expensive component parts.

The verdict: A very secure mounting system.

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

Boardmaker Online now launched in Ireland

Tobii Dynavox have recently launched their new Boardmaker Online product in Ireland through SafeCare Technologies. It has all the functionalities of previous versions of Boardmaker, except now that it’s web-based you don’t need any disks and multiple users can access it from any PC.

Instructor showing students how to use Boardmaker Online

You can purchase a Personal, Professional or District account and the amount you pay depends on the type of account, the amount of “instructors” and how many years you want to sign up for. You can also get a discount for any old Boardmaker disks that you want to trade in.

You get all the symbols that have been available in past versions, as well as some new symbol sets and any new ones that are created in the future will also be given to you. Because it’s web-based, you have access to previously created activities via the online community and you can upload activities you create yourself to that community and share them with other people in your district or all over the world.

Because it’s no longer tied to one device, you can create activities on your PC and assign them to your “students” who can use them either in school and/or at home. You no longer need to have a user’s device in your possession to update their activities and they don’t need to have a period without their device while you do this.

You (and the other instructors in your district if you have a district licence) can also assign the same activity to many students and by having different accessibility options set up for different students, the activity is automatically accessible for their individual needs. For example, you could create an activity and assign it to a student who uses eye gaze and to a student who uses switches and that activity will show up on their device in the format that’s accessible for them.

Picture shows how instructors can assign Boardmaker Online activities to multiple students

The results of students’ work can be tracked against IEP or educational goals which then helps you decide what activities would be suitable to assign next. You can also track staff and student usage.

One limitation is that you can only create activities on a Windows PC or Mac. You can play activities on an iPad using the free app but not create them on it, and you can’t use Boardmaker Online to either create or play activities on an Android or Windows-based tablet.

The other point to mention is that because it’s a subscription-based product, the payment you have to make is recurring every year rather than being a one-off payment, which may not suit everyone.

However, with the new features it’s definitely worth getting the free 30-day trial and deciding for yourself if you’d like to trade in your old Boardmaker disks for the new online version!

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.

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.

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.

AT Surveys in the UK and Ireland: What do they tell us? And what do we still need to learn?

stock image representing statistics

In May 2016 the accessibility team responsible for the GOV.UK domain posted a survey looking for information about the types of Assistive Technology (AT) people visiting the site were using. GOV.UK is the central online hub in the UK for all government services and information and as such, it takes accessibility very seriously. The survey which was open for 6 weeks, was answered by over 700 people and has produced some interesting results. You can read a post on their blog with all the results here.

Around the same time here in Ireland, Enable Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland conducted their own online AT user survey which also had some interesting findings. You can read more about that here.

Online Accessibility Vs Personal AT Use

Before comparing the results we must first highlight that we are not comparing like with like here. The UK.GOV survey was at heart about accessibility: the information we learn about AT is in the context of accessing a website whereas the Irish survey was seeking to find out about the range of AT which people use, and their experience in securing it through public or private funding. This will obviously skew the UK.GOV sample towards software solutions (they don’t appear to have asked about hardware like alternative input devices) to support computer access, literacy and visual impairment. Taking this into account what does stand out is the amount of “premium” AT solutions identified as being used in the UK. 29% of those responding to this survey used a screen reader and of these just under 40% identified JAWS as being their solution of choice. VoiceOver was next (but by far the most popular choice for mobile users) followed by just 12% using the free Open Source NVDA. (See graph below).

results of screen reader survey. Important results are covered in text above. JAWS at the top with almost 40%, followed by voiceover then NVDA. Otgers further down include Supervova, WindowsEyes and Talkback

About 30% of respondents use magnification software, and almost 70% identified high end proprietary solutions like Zoomtext (54%), Supernova (11%) and Magic (4%). Within magnification the lack of a credible open source alternative could help to explain the result. There is a similar situation within literacy support software with Read & Write from TextHelp accounting for almost 70% of the total. Finally it’s no surprise that various iterations of Dragon Naturally Speaking from Nuance accounted for almost 90% of speech recognition software.

Do these results tell us that there is a thriving market for high end proprietary AT software in the UK? Maybe not, it’s far more likely that the people responding to this survey were professionals working in a corporate enterprise type environment which might favour proprietary over open source or inbuilt solutions.

Cost of AT

In terms of cost of AT, the surprise result of the Irish survey was that 62% of AT solutions cost less than €1000 and the UK.GOV results seem to be similar. JAWS and possibly some versions of Zoomtext would cost in excess of €1000. However, all other solutions identified here would come in below that.

It’s interesting to see both the U.K. and Ireland attempting to gather current data on AT use. What these surveys highlight most of all is the need for more comprehensive data gathering to enable us to plan for the future, across the life span: from early childhood to old age. Assistive Technology is a tool for all, but still, far too few people who could benefit from it, are aware of it, or know how to apply for funding for it.

Assistive Technology for People with Disabilities and Older People

Assistive technology for people with disabilities and older people paper

On November 7th last in Dublin, Enable Ireland and the Disability Federation in Ireland launched a Discussion Paper representing the views of a cross-sectoral stakeholder group convened through CHAT (Community Hub for Assistive Technology) which sets out a practical road map to improving the provision of Assistive Technology services and supports to people with disabilities and older people. Further details can be found here:

http://www.enableireland.ie/resources/news/enable-ireland-and-disability-federation-ireland-launch-discussion-paper-future

Currently, far too few people who could benefit from AT, have access to it here in Ireland, but with increasingly accessible mainstream solutions coupled with associated dramatic falls in cost, we believe that the remedy for this gap is more achievable than ever.

This report was published through a partnership between Enable Ireland and DFI, who share a concern regarding the under-resourcing of Assistive Technology nationally. Together, and in partnership with the CHAT community, and any other interested parties, we recognise an urgent need for advocacy and information campaigning in order to increase public awareness and understanding of the potential for AT to enhance quality of life and independence, as well as enhancing government’s awareness of their role in making AT available to those who need it.

Hear more on the launch from our ATandMe Podcast

http://www.atandme.com/?page_id=331