Special Feature

Handicap-friendly apps

Posted on January 21, 2011

In today’s wired-in world, wheelchairs may as well be as obsolete as last year’s touchscreen model. Tech players big and small are now wading in a new niche market with applications that are fit for the disabled.

Designed to anticipate special needs, these intuitive apps have picked up where last generation’s augmentative `communication (AAC) devices--like word boards or Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer--left off.

Intersection Explorer
Borne of Google’s own Eyes-Free Project, this free Android navigation tool, launched last October, had been specially designed for the vision-impaired. The interactive map featured in Intersection Explorer lets a user virtually survey the lay of the land without stepping out of the house in a kind of ‘touch exploration’.

Once they’re ready to venture outdoors, an aggregate app, WalkyTalky, can patch in audible directions leading to one’s chosen destination with help from Google Maps’ Walking Directions feature. Around the neighborhood, it will also read aloud street addresses and nearby attractions as one strolls by them.

Also running on Android, V-Braille can teach blind, deaf-blind and partially-sighted individuals Braille characters via haptic feedback or touchscreen vibrations. Developed by students at the Computer Science and Engineering department of the University of Washington, the cross-platform technology has been used to run two of the school’s other apps, the children’s games BrailLearn and Braille Buddies.

At roughly $10 per download on the iTunes store, this special education app lets one combine pictures and recorded phrases into corresponding buttons onscreen, thus enabling children to put their thoughts into words with a push of a button. The accompanying audio would also be recorded in a familiar voice--whether that of a parent, caregiver or therapist.

VerbalVictor was cranked out by a team helmed by associate computer science professor Paul Pauca as an alternative means of non-verbal communication for his son Victor--thus the app’s name--who was suffering from a rare genetic disorder called Pitt Hopkins Syndrome.

Compatible with most portable hand-held gadgets, Proloquo2Go’s text-to-speech technology converts symbols into audible phrases. Its vast default vocabulary contains over 7,000 words that can give a second voice to stroke or brain injury victims, as well as those suffering from developmental disabilities like Down’s syndrome.

For the hard of hearing, soundAMP’s sound processing solutions can turn a plug-in headset or an iPhone’s built-in microphone into a discrete hearing aid. It’s been beefed up with a five-band graphic equalizer that can be adjusted to one’s preferences, whether it’s amplifying some frequencies or filtering others out. SoundAMP’s sound-level meter also enables users to jack its volume all the way up or mute it altogether.

Like something out a science fiction novel, calls made via mind control is now on the verge of reality: ThinkContacts, Nokia’s latest project, is an application that is meant to run on its N900 Maemo platform with help from a Bluetooth connection and one’s own brainwaves.

The technology comes with an accompanying NeuroSky headset that uses an analog-to-digital converter to measure a user’s brain activity: attention levels that rise to 70% will signal the software to scroll to the next name on their address book; once the former drops lower than 30%, it shifts to the previous name; past 80% and a call is automatically placed to the selected contact.--Victoria T. Vizcarra