Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cyabathlon: Sporting Event For People With Disabilities

There is a lot going on in the assistive technology world - newer and exciting advancements are happening all the time. However, the purpose of assistive technology is not just to provide suitable accommodations and make life easier for people with disabilities but also to take things to the next level - make them competitive; help them become true sportsmen.

To bring that philosophy to reality, Cybathlon, a championship for people with disabilities, will take place in Zurich on 8 October 2016. The event is open to everyone who wear prosthetic limbs; use exoskeletons, powered wheelchairs or brain interfaces. The people competing can either use commercially available products or prototypes made by individuals or research labs. There would be two medals for each event - one for the "pilot" (the person driving or using the device) and the other for the manufacturer of said device.

 Pilots will be participating in the following disciplines:
  • Arm Prosthetic Race: Amputees wearing prosthetic upper arm limbs will be required to complete two hand tasks as quickly as possible.
  • Brain Computer Interface Race: Pilots will wear a brain interface that will be used to control their avatar in a horse race or car race game.
  • FES Bike Race: Pilots with complete spinal cord injuries will be given Functional Electrical Simulation devices which will enable them to pedal on a circular track.
  • Leg Prosthetics Race: Pilots with lower limb prosthetics will be competing in a race with tasks and hurdles.
  • Powered Exoskeleton Race: Pilots wearing exoskeleton will be walking in a circuit with various tasks, elements and hurdles.
  • Powered Wheelchair Race: Similar to the Exoskeleton Race, pilots who are on powered wheelchair will be steering their wheelchairs along a particular course with various obstacles.

As an example, here is what the Leg Prosthetic Race circuit looks like (click to enlarge):

diagram showing leg prosthetic race circuit with its elements and hurdles

The Cybathlon is not just for promoting competitiveness among people with disabilities - there are some very noble aspirations attached to it. First and foremost, to keep encouraging companies and research labs to produce cutting edge assistive technology devices. Second, to make the common public aware of all the challenges and opportunities that assistive technology provides, and last, but not the least, to enable pilots to compete in various races!

This is a unique way to bring excitement into the assistive technology world and to everyone involved in this area. Keep an eye on this event. I will post again about Cybathlon as more information becomes available!

Website: Cybathlon

Monday, March 24, 2014

VocaliD: Donating Your Voice To People With Speech Impairment

An image showing voice synthesis

We never give too much attention to our voice - it is one of the things we take for granted. However, there are millions of people around the world who were either born with a speech impairment or lost their voice because of a stroke, or some serious disease like Parkinson's or Cerebral Palsy. Learning new ways to communicate either using sign language or any other accessible device with limited/generic synthetic voices may not be a weapon of choice for many, especially the ones who lose their perfect voice later in their lives because of a disease.

That is where VocaliD comes into the picture. VocaliD is a company that is trying to bridge all sorts of gaps and helping people with speech impairments communicate using natural voices. 

But what does that exactly mean?

VocaliD consists of a team led by Dr. Patel who listens to the limited sounds of patients with speech impairments. These sounds help the team understand what this person's voice may sound like if it were high pitched, raspy, etc. Once they have the patient's sounds, they look for a surrogate - a person of the same age and sex who has no speech impairment. This surrogate is made to record thousands of sample sentences (from books like White Fang, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Velveteen Rabbit). The two voices of the patient and surrogate are then blended and broken down into tiny units of sound that can then be used to construct words! The hybrid of the two voices makes the final voice very natural and personalized,  and not so synthetic.

(To read more technical details on how this is done, go here.)

This is a big improvement in communication because the listener gets more information from how a person speaks than just the content of what they say. 

Currently, the process requires that the surrogate come to a studio to record their voice but VocaliD plans to release a phone or web app so that anyone could record their voice from locations most convenient to them (their home, for example). This makes more sense because recording thousands of sentences takes many hours, and surrogates who volunteer to donate their voices would ideally like to do it in 15 - 20 minute sessions over a period of days. The team is also planning on creating a game to encourage children to record their voices.

VocaliD is looking for volunteers from around the world to donate their voices, and if you are interested, head to their website to sign up.

If you are interested in receiving a personalized voice, you can sign up for that here.


Source: NewScientist 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Disability Hacker: A Great Blog For Hacks Around The House For Disabled People

Banner stating outta the box thinking with disability hacker

We depend so much on technology these days that more often than not, we sideline some of the most basic and trivial things and concepts that can be extremely beneficial in performing day to day activities. We are constantly looking at the next cutting edge technology that is going to revolutionize the assistive technology world, but how often do we scrutinize the very ordinary and simple things around us that can make everything easy and wonderful?

I recently stumbled across a blog that does just that - instead of focussing on top of the line technological marvels, it looks at the simplest of items around us that prove to be, well, magical of sorts. If you go to Disability Hacker, you will find all sorts of workarounds, gadgets, ideas that are either readily available or can be easily brought to life ("hacked"). From single handed soap dispensers to knives (helpful for amputees), from cracking an egg single handedly using a special (readily available on Amazon!) gadget to chopping vegetables, this blog is full of ideas and mechanisms that will help anyone with not so good motor skills to perform daily activities without trouble. Has taking care of a pet always been a challenge because of your disability? They have tips on how to take best care of your pet - what items to buy and where that doesn't involve a lot of physical work. For someone who has mobility issues, going around the house and turning off all the lights around the house can be quite a cumbersome process. Did you know you could connect your lights to remote controlled sockets and turn them off all at once while relaxing in your favorite chair? Don't thank me, thank the Disability Hacker! 

I am glad blogs like Disability Hacker exist. What I realized after reading that blog is simplicity is everywhere, and provides a great deal of convenience and comfort. All we have to do is look for it and appreciate it!

Head to the Disability Hacker to know more about hacks around the house! On Twitter , they are @hackdisability.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Braigo - An Inexpensive Portable Braille Printer Made With Lego

Braigo - braille printer using Lego

You probably may have already heard of this 12 year old genius who has been making waves in the technology world for his invention that will be a boon to millions of blind people. 

Shubham Banerjee, a 7th grader from Santa Clara, CA has designed a portable printer using the Lego Mindstorms EV3 - an educational Lego kit that teaches various electronics/robotics concepts to children. His design is very simple (I am sure it wasn't so simple to come up with the idea though!) - the Mindstorm brick is programmed to accept letters A - Z and space. The brick is connected to a print head that accepts input and punches the braille equivalent of the input letter on paper. 

This is a proof of concept that just shows how easily a portable braille printer (that runs on battery) can be assembled at home with utmost ease. Currently at its most basic form (prints only letters A - Z), Shubham is already working on version 2.0 of "Braigo" that will print more characters and do a lot more. Braigo was recently praised a lot by the "champion of change" Henry "Hoby" Wedler, who made it very clear that this is just the beginning, and that Braigo has a lot of potential going forward (not to mention that Braigo has received praise from just about anyone who has seen it in action). 
Braigo - braille printer made with Lego
One of the most beneficial things about Braigo is that it is not as expensive as some of the commercial
braille printers/embossers available today, which can be as pricey as a couple of thousand dollars. Assembling Braigo at home involves the Mindstorm EV3 which is only $350. 

During a recent discussion with Shubham, Hoby points out that Braigo is excellent for parents who want to teach it to their children but themselves don't know or understand Braille. He also goes on to suggest that Braigo can be attached to some sort speech to text mechanism where the user would speak the letter and Braigo would just print it. This would enable blind users to print their own Braille documents or labels without anyone's help.

Like I said earlier, this is just the beginning, and the journey Braigo can take is endless. Shubham has been kind enough to keep Braigo open source so that anyone could take the base  model and build on top of it, and keep bettering it to make it all the more practical and friendly for everyone and yet keep the price low. It can be used by parents, teachers in schools, visually impaired people themselves with future enhancements, to name a few.

Be sure to hit the source link to read more about the motivation behind Braigo, how Shubham built it, the components used, and the different things he tried while designing Braigo.

Keep an eye on Braigo (here's the Facebook page for updates). See where all it takes you!

Here's the video where Hoby discusses Braigo - its advantages and certain enhancements Shubham can add to it.

Source: CBC News via Twitter

Sunday, March 2, 2014

WHILL Type-A Four Wheel Drive Stylish Wheelchair!

picture of WHILL Type-A wheelchair
Assistive technology products and concepts are always appreciated for their functionality and not necessarily their aesthetics, because traditionally, the focus has never been on how a product looks. The only criteria, really, for an accessibility related product to succeed is that it does its job well.

But why not take things a step further and make them look pleasing as well? What's wrong with making an accessibility product aesthetically pleasant and beautiful? In this age of minimalism and sleek designs, why not give "the looks" of a product some love and affection as well?

We already know that the WHILL Type-A brings technology and modern design together. The company that is combining sleekness, robustness and speed in the form of a personal mobility device has more exciting news for everyone!

The award winning team behind the WHILL Type-A comprises of talented people who've worked at Nissan, Sony, Olympus in the past, will be selling 50 units in California this summer and all over the US in the winter. Pre-order is available for an initial deposit of $500. The purchase price for this product is $9,500 which does not include shipping etc. I am hoping that insurance companies would be able to fund the purchase of this wheelchair for those who really need it.

WHILL Type-A can handle any kind of terrain without showing any signs of stress, thanks to its four wheel drive.

Did I say even snow?

Another big hurdle WHILL Type A helps the user tackle is going up steep slope. Who says four wheel drives are only for cars and big SUVs?

Talking about cars and SUVs, the WHILL Type-A is so compact that you can fit two in a car!

Want to see all the features of WHILL Type-A? Go here.

If you are a AT professional who work with clients in wheelchairs and go to exhibitions and events to check out the newest products, WHILL will be at the following events this year if you want to check them out:

- Abilities Expo LA
February 28th - March 2nd
Los Angeles Convention Center - West Hall A
1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015

- Test Drive Event at Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco
March 5th, 11am-3pm
Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco
649 Mission St, 3rd Floor San Francisco, CA 94105

- San Diego Annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference
March 19th - March 21st
Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel
One Market Place San Diego, CA 92101

WHILL Website:
WHILL on Facebook:


Monday, February 24, 2014

3D Printed Exoskeleton

Amanda Boxtel walking with the 3d printed exoskeleton

What is it that 3D printers cannot print? "Nothing" is probably the most accurate answer!

Artificial limbs, that are usually not very cheap and easy to get are easily becoming quite affordable. To take things a step further and make things more exciting, a 3D printed exoskeleton was given to Amanda Boxtel, who has been paralyzed from waist down since 1992, enabling her to get off her wheelchair and walk again. She was told by her doctors that she would never be able to do so!

The Ekso-Suit, designed specifically for Amanda, was made possible by designers at 3DS. To make sure that the exoskeleton fit her perfectly, they started by scanning the contours of her thighs, shins and spine and digitizing all that information to create the 3D base for the exoskeleton, which was then integrated into other mechanical components to create the full automated suit. One important factor they had to consider while designing the suit was that since Amanda did not have any sensation from waist down, they didn't want any of the components poking into her skin as that would have caused abrasions. Since Amanda has no sensation in her legs, those abrasions could have formed dangerous complications.

This 3D printed Exoskeleton is a big step towards making such accessories available to the common masses at prices substantially less than other commercially available solutions. 3D printing in the coming years is going to bring lots of exciting yet inexpensive enhancements to the assistive technology world!

Watch this video to see all the components the Ekso-Suit is made of. Also see Amanda Boxtel walk with the Ekso-Suit on!

Source: 3D Systems via Gizmodo


Friday, February 7, 2014

How Do Blind Users Use Smartphones?

blind user using smartphone

There are several things that are just not easy to understand if you don't have any sort of exposure to them. One of those several things that (especially sighted) people have a hard time understanding is how blind people use smartphones? A device with just a flat screen and one to maybe four physical buttons was the bane of many blind users when it first came out, but we all know that things have changed in the last so many years, and phone have become really accessible. But what does that mean (especially to sighted users who are not necessarily familiar with accessibility)? How does accessibility help blind users? What do they do different with their phones to do what sighted users would do? What kind of apps do they use on their phones?

So many questions!

Jonathan Mosen couldn't have done a better job explaining how and what for would a blind user use their smartphone. See him explain how to turn on voiceover on iDevices, and use it to navigate through apps and use them. He also enlightens us about some special apps specifically for blind users (an app that lets you take pictures of an object and searches a crowdsourced database to identify it) that make use of the smartphone a breeze and also enhance their user experience.

Last but not the least, he emphasizes how important making apps accessible is only because there are more and more blind people using smartphones now. If you are a developer, you cannot afford to ignore accessibility.

Watch this amazing video and share it! This is good knowledge for anyone and everyone!


Source: Twitter
Image source: New York Times