Every High Tech AT Solution Needs At Least One Low or No Tech Alternative
When relying on a high-tech AT solution it is important to realize that technology can fail. High tech solutions have lots of technology and, therefore, have more chance of failure. To make sure that failing AT does not limit ability it is important to have alternative solutions readily available that are either no or low tech.
At our house we have AT solutions of all tech levels, including some really high-tech solutions. In general, high-tech AT solutions involve sophisticated electronics; usually microcontrollers and sometimes these solutions incorporate computers. Sophisticated electronics, microcontrollers, and computers are amazing and wonderful tools for everyone. I have been fascinated with them since I was a boy – which helps to explain my educational career as an Electrical Engineer and my vocational career as a Software Engineer. Within the world of Assistive Technology they most definitely have their place.
However, as a general rule of thumb the high-tech AT solutions have more components and, therefore, more points of potential failure. As an example, our highest tech, and most important, AT solution is J’s Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device. J uses the Tobii C12 with CEye module. Essentially, the Tobii C12 is a touch screen Windows laptop computer that runs special AAC software. Since J’s Cerebral Palsy makes using a touch screen challenging, the CEye module track’s J’s eyes (I can write more on that technology in a separate post if there is interest in how it works). Instead of touching the desired cell on the screen, J looks at the it for a configurable period of time (currently about 1/2 a second). The CEye determines where on the screen J is looking and translates that eye dwell into a mouse click and the Tobii C12 speaks the desired word / phrase just as if J had touched the screen.
This particular solution comes with the following hiccups:
- Water – It is a computer so it cannot be used around water. That means a no-go at bath time, when its raining, at the pool, at the beach, etc. If there’s water, there’s no Tobii.
- Glare – The screen is not backlit (something fixed in the Tobii C15), so it cannot be used outdoors. The eye gaze technology works, there is just too much glare on the screen for J to be able to see the choices available.
- Battery Life – The batteries last about four hours. That means a battery swap, or quick charge, is needed to go through a full day. Hectic evenings at home have resulted in forgetting to charge batteries for the next day.
- Camera Obstructions – The CEye module tracks J’s eyes only if it has an unobstructed view of J’s face. If it is time for J to work on a project, it can often result in something being between J’s face and the CEye cameras.
- Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) – Tobii is running the Windows 7 Operating System. Like all Windows machines (and computers in general), sometimes unexpected crashes occur.
- Other Software/Hardware Failures – Not all software or hardware failures are the BSoD; however, they do occur enough that I am listing these types of things twice. Most often either the touch screen just stops working (needed for modeling), the CEye stops working, the AAC software crashes, the AAC software hangs or has major lag, etc..
- Calibration Problems – The Tobii CEye has a calibration process where the user watches a dot fly across the screen and stop at either 5 or 9 spots. Not the most exciting thing for a child to watch. When that calibration is not great, J may be looking at a particular word but Tobii thinks J is looking at one letter lower or to the left or diagonal… (Unfortunately, one of those “other software failures” mentioned above is an occasional loss of calibration data.)
- Inexperienced Partners – Successful use of such a high-tech AAC device is a team effort. It requires J’s communication partners to know how Tobii works and how to address some common issues (J’s communication partner is not always myself or AT Mom, but also teachers, aides, therapists, etc.).
- Content – Programming content for Tobii (and any high-tech AAC device) takes time. J’s vocabulary and communication needs grow at a rate that far out paces my ability to develop new content for Tobii.
This is actually not a complete list of the restrictions of using a high-tech AAC device, but I think it is long enough to get my point across.
If we were to look at this high-tech device as THE solution for J’s communication we would have lots of situations where J would be without the ability to communicate. Not exactly the solving the problem. Instead, we have added a number of low and no tech solutions (hard copy comm boards, partner assisted scanning, J’s own gesture based natural language, an eye code for spelling, etc.). This means that when Tobii is not working or not available for whatever reason, J is not without a communication solution.