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.

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