New app helps those who can't speak to be heard
Published Wednesday, April 6, 2011 7:12AM EDT
Around the world, there are millions who cannot speak, either because of brain injuries or conditions such as autism. Now, some students at the University of Toronto have come up with an app that merges a voice synthesizer with a GPS to give people the words they need, wherever they are.
The device is called MyVoice. It's an assistive communication device similar to the technology used by Stephen Hawking that helps users to speak. But unlike the unwieldy and expensive voice synthesizers of old, MyVoice can be downloaded onto iPhones, iPads and Android devices.
The app helps users create customized dictionaries of their most commonly used words and phrases to fit their most common conversation topics.
What makes MyVoice unique is that it's location-specific, built to use a smartphone's GPS system to determine the user's location. It then pulls up the phrases they need for that location.
"So when you go to Tim Hortons, you get words like ‘Timbits' and ‘double-double.' When you go to the movie theatre, you get ‘tickets,' ‘seats', ‘soft drinks'," explains designer Aakash Sahney.
"Usually, people would have to navigate through a huge hierarchy of words on a traditional device in order to find these seemingly unrelated words. But using our technology, using MyVoice, they're able to very quickly get to the words that they actually need to say at that time."
Lead designer Alex Levy says finding the right words at the right time quickly is so important to patients with speech problems.
"The reason that's so important is because one of the things that people with communication challenges often suffer through is the long uncomfortable silences that that socially ostracize them. You're standing in line at Tim Horton's tapping away for minutes at a time to convey a certain thought. Those situations, we think, are helped dramatically by this," he says.
The idea for the device came from a stroke patient who approached researchers at the University of Toronto's Computer Sciences department. The patient was carrying around a big briefcase with him everywhere he went that contained his voice synthesizer, as well as a bunch of handwritten phrase books and maps. He asked the researchers if there was a way they could put all that info into a handheld device.
So 24-year-old Levy teamed up with 22-year-old computer engineering student Sahney to develop the system. As they worked on prototypes, they found the interest overwhelming.
"Speech pathologists, rehab specialists would come up and they would all keep asking us this question: when is it available?" Levy remembers.
"And we would say, 'Well… it's a prototype … we're not selling it, it's not publicly available'"
The research team designed soon found funding through Google as well as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The app is still being tested by different kinds of patients, such as seniors living with the effects of a stroke and teens with autism and learning difficulties. But the student designers have created a company and are making the service available as they work on refining it.
The tool is now available on the Apple iTunes store for free for six months. After that, the service will charge $30 a month as the developers keep updating it.
"I think it will make a colossal difference for people," says speech language pathologist Alexandra Carling-Rowland, who helped to test the device. "It will give them the confidence to participate in life."
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip