Tobii buys SmartBox – What might this mean for computer access and AAC?

Big news (in the AT world anyway) may have arrived in your mail box early last week. It was announced that leading AAC and Computer Access manufacturer Tobii purchased SmartBox AT (Sensory Software), developers of The Grid 3 and Look2Learn. As well as producing these very popular software titles, SmartBox were also a leading supplier of a range of AAC and Computer Access hardware, including their own GridPad and PowerPad ranges. Basically (in this part of the world at least) they were the two big guns in this area of AT, between them accounting for maybe 90% of the market. An analogy using soft drink companies would be that this is like Coca-Cola buying Pepsi.

Before examining what this takeover (or amalgamation?) means to their customers going forward it is worth looking back at what each company has historically done well. This way we can hopefully provide a more optimistic future for AT users rather than the future offered by what might be considered a potential monopoly.

Sensory Software began life in 2000 from the spare bedroom of founder Paul Hawes. Paul had previously worked for AbilityNet and had 13 years’ experience working in the area of AT. Early software like GridKeys and The Grid had been very well received and the company continued to grow. In 2006 they setup Smartbox to concentrate on complete AAC systems while sister company Sensory Software concentrated on developing software. In 2015 both arms of the company joined back together under the SamrtBox label. By this time their main product, the Grid 3, had established itself as a firm favourite with Speech and Language Therapists (SLT), for the wide range of communication systems it supported and Occupational Therapists and AT Professionals for its versatility in providing alternative input options to Windows and other software. Many companies would have been satisfied with providing the best product on the market however there were a couple of other areas where SmartBox also excelled. They may not have been the first AT software developers to harness the potential resources of their end users (they also may have been, I would need to research that further) but they were certainly the most successful. They succeeded in creating a strong community around the Grid 2 & 3 with a significant proportion of the online grids available to download being user generated. Their training and support was also second to none. Regular high quality training events were offered throughout Ireland and the UK. Whether by email, phone or the chat feature on their website their support was always top quality also. Their staff clearly knew their product inside out, responses were timely and they were always a pleasure to deal with.

Tobii have been around since 2001. The Swedish firm actually started with eyegaze, three entrepreneurs – John Elvesjö, Mårten Skogö and Henrik Eskilsson recognised the potential of eye tracking as an input method for people with disabilities. In 2005 they released the MyTobii P10, the world’s first computer with built-in eye tracking (and I’ve no doubt there are still a few P10 devices still in use). What stood out about the P10 was the build quality of the hardware, it was built like a tank. While Tobii could be fairly criticized for under specifying their all-in-one devices in terms of Processor and Memory, the build quality of their hardware is always top class. Over the years Tobii have grown considerably, acquiring Viking Software AS (2007), Assistive Technology Inc. (2008) and DynaVox Systems LLC (2014). They have grown into a global brand with offices around the world. As mentioned above, Tobii’s main strength is that they make good hardware. In my opinion they make the best eye trackers and have consistently done so for the last 10 years. Their AAC software has also come on considerably since the DynaVox acquisition. While Communicator always seemed to be a pale imitation of the Grid (apologies if I’m being unfair, but certainly true in terms of its versatility and ease of use for computer access) it has steadily being improving. Their newer Snap + Core First AAC software has been a huge success and for users just looking for communication solution would be an attractive option over the more expensive (although much fuller featured) Grid 3. Alongside Snap + Core they have also brought out a “Pathways” companion app. This app is designed to guide parents, care givers and communication partners in best practices for engaging Snap + Core First users. It supports the achievement of communication goals through video examples, lesson plans, interactive goals grid for tracking progress, and a suite of supporting digital and printable materials. A really useful resource which will help to empower parents and prove invaluable to those not lucky enough to have regular input from an SLT.

To sum things up. We had two great companies, both with outstanding products. I have recommended the combination of the Grid software and a Tobii eye tracker more times than I remember. The hope is that Tobii can keep the Grid on track and incorporate the outstanding support and communication that was always an integral part of SmartBox’s operation. With the addition of their hardware expertise and recent research driven progress in the area of AAC, there should be a lot to look forward to in the future.

If you are a Grid user and you have any questions or concerns about this news, true to form, the communication lines are open. There is some information at this link and at the bottom of the page you can submit your question.

Bloom 2017 ‘No Limits’ Grid Set

You may have heard about or seen photos of Enable Irelands fantastic “No Limits” Garden at this year’s Bloom festival. Some of you were probably even lucky enough to have actually visited it in the Phoenix Park over the course of the Bank Holiday weekend. In order to support visitors but also to allow those who didn’t get the chance to go share in some of the experience we put together a “No Limits” Bloom 2017 Grid. If you use the Grid (2 or 3) from Sensory software, or you know someone who does and you would like to learn more about the range of plants used in Enable Ireland’s garden you can download and install it by following the instructions below.

How do I install this Grid?

If you are using the Grid 3 you can download and install the Bloom 2017 Grid without leaving the application. From Grid explorer:

  • Click on the Menu Bar at the top of the screen
  • In the top left click the + sign (Add Grid Set)
  • A window will open (pictured below). In the bottom corner click on the Online Grids button (you will need to be connected to the Internet).

grid 3 screen shot

  • If you do not see the Bloom2017 Grid in the newest section you can either search for it (enter Bloom2017 in the search box at the top right) or look in the Interactive learning or Education Categories.

If you are using the Grid 2 or you want to install this Grid on a computer or device that is not connected to the Internet then you can download the Grid set at the link below. You can then add it to the Grid as above except select Grid Set File tab and browse to where you have the Grid Set saved.

For Grid 2 users:

Download Bloom 2017 Grid here https://grids.sensorysoftware.com/en/k-43/bloom2017

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!

Global Accessibility Awareness Day – Apple Accessibility – Designed for everyone Videos

Today May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and to mark the occasion Apple have produced a series of 7 videos (also available with audio description) highlighting how their products are being used in innovative ways by people with disabilities. All the videos are available in a playlist here and I guarantee you, if you haven’t seen them and you are interested in accessibility and AT, it’ll be the best 15 minutes you have spent today! Okay the cynical among you will point out this is self promotion by Apple, a marketing exercise. Certainly on one level of course it is, they are a company and like any company their very existence depends on generating profit for their shareholders. These videos promote more than Apple however, they promote independence, creativity and inclusion through technology. Viewed in this light these videos will illustrate to people with disabilities how far technology has moved on in recent years and make them aware of the potential benefits to their own lives. Hopefully the knock on effect of this increased awareness will be increased demand. Demand these technologies people, it’s your right!

As far as a favorite video from this series goes, everyone will have their own. In terms of the technology on show, to me Todd “The Quadfather” below was possibly the most interesting.

This video showcases Apple’s HomeKit range of associated products and how they can be integrated with Siri.

My overall favorite video however is Patrick, musician, DJ and cooking enthusiast. Patrick’s video is an ode to independence and creativity. The technologies he illustrates are Logic Pro (Digital Audio Workstation software) with VoiceOver (Apple’s inbuilt screen-reader) and the object recognizer app TapTapSee which although has been around for several years now, is still an amazing use of technology. It’s Patrick’s personality that makes the video though, this guy is going places, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own prime time TV show this time next year.

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.

Smartbox Study day in Dublin

A Smartbox Live event showing the audienceSmartbox have some very useful assistive technology products within communication, environment control and computer control. They have recently launched their Grid3 software which has continued to improve over the years, enabling many people with disabilities an alternative method to control their computer or to even communicate.
The Smartbox team will be taking to the road; bringing their developments in the world of AAC and assistive technology to venues across the UK and Ireland.

Next study day is:

Dublin – Friday, 6 November at Crowne Plaza Hotel
Everyone is welcome
Registration: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/smartbox-assistive-technology-6787601933

Assistive Technology Webinars

 

webinar graphic

Are you looking for free expert training and advice is assistive technology?

Then consider signing up for a webinar.  There are lots of webinars available within various areas of assistive technology.  Some have a charge, but there are many freely available for anyone to take part in.

A webinar is a live meeting that takes place over the web.  The meeting can be a presentation, discussion, demonstration, or an instructional session.  Participants can view documents and applications via their computers, while join in the discussion by audio or via a live Q&A text area.

Many assistive technology suppliers and organisations are using webinars as a way to share information.  Below are a list of a few online webinars that you can register on or listen to archived sessions.

Inclusive technology

http://www.inclusive.co.uk/events/webinars

The Great Lakes ADA Center’s

http://www.ada-audio.org/Webinar/AccessibleTechnology/Schedule/#fy2015Session6

ATIA Online Professional Development

http://www.atia.org/i4a/member_directory/feResultsListing.cfm?directory_id=8&viewAll=1

Don Johnston Incorporated

http://donjohnston.com/webinars/#.VecAe_lViko

AbleNet University Live Webinars

https://www.ablenetinc.com/resources/live_webinars/

Iowa Assistive Technology Professional Development Network

https://www.education.uiowa.edu/centers/icater/webinars

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

Switch Assessment Webinar

webinarComing up tomorrow is a free online webinar hosted by AbleNet University. These webinars are free and provide good practical information on a range of Assistive Technology topics.

Date 10th February 2015 at 11:00am CST (or 17:00 hrs. GMT) – 60 minutes.
Title: Switch Assessment, Part 1: Determining the best switch type and location for clients with muscle weakness
This Webinar will present assessment strategies to determine the optimal switch location and switch type to provide access for clients with muscle weakness.

If you can’t make this one, you can keep an eye on AbleNet University’s Upcoming Live Webinars.

Also on switch assessment which is worth having a look at, is the ACE Centre (North)’s publication on Switch Assessment and Planning Framework for Individuals with Physical Disabilities

Android Switch Access

Android Switch AccessSwitch access is now available in the new version of Android Lollipop version 5. This feature is design for people with limited access to the touch screen. Using externally connected switches a user can navigate around the home screen of the tablet, open apps, and navigate between clickable objects on the screen.  Within the accessibility settings you can choose options to use a single switch with auto scanning or two switches with step scanning.   There are also new features to improve the contrast of text and options to assist people who are colour blind.

A number of blue tooth switches and keyboards that can be used such as the Blue2 switch from AbleNet. Keys or switches can be assigned to actions such as start auto scan, click, long click, home, back etc. To get switch access started you need to first pair a bluetooth switch or keyboard and also enable Switch Access under accessibility.

A useful guide for setting up your new Android tablet is available from AbleNet.