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 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 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.