Thursday, October 31, 2013

Revisiting TADQ

It was time to check again with TADQ. So, I packed up my Makey-Makey kit and 'home-made' basic game controller and went there. I was really glad that my application has been processed and now I am ready to volunteer for TADQ! I was lucky enough to meet their Occupational Therapist (OT) and a technician who is a volunteer. Firstly, I demonstrated my game controller by playing a car racing game from my laptop. They liked the idea of using beer lids and low cost material and also seemed to be highly interested in Makey-Makey kit. This controller required very low pressure to activate the buttons which was a favourable factor in developing devices for the people with motor disabilities (MDs).

The OT suggested possible avenues to explore in improving communications of the disabled people.

  • A controller to navigate a media/DVD player without using a keyguard for a keyboard. Keyguard is a keyboard shaped board with holes for each key which supports a person with low motor skills to control his/her finger movements better with high accuracy. However, these keyguards are highly costly and need to be custom made for each individual which can incur a higher cost. Both OT and technician suggested that my game controller can be customized to achieve this.
  • A keyguard for a QWERTY keyboard

  • Word prediction software for computers, tablets and phones. Aim of this is to aid people with motor disabilities to type faster and accurately. Currently, the available software is not much accurate in achieving this and they are expensive to purchase.
  • An application and a device to turn pages in an iBook for a person who is using a tablet PC. Some people like to read eBooks as they cannot turn pages in physical books. However, using keyboard or touchpad is equally tiresome for such a person. Therefore more simple solution is required to achieve this. There is a solution for this from Spectronics called J-Pad that works with iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone using Bluetooth connectivity ( However, this is highly expensive to be afforded by a single person ($459.00) like many assistive devices in the market. Therefore, OT suggested that using Makey-Makey will be a great idea instead of using these types of high end devices.

  • Compatibility with Apple Mac and iPad. They suggested that Apple has more accessibility features than some other platforms. However, it is still difficult for a person with MDs to access them using touch based interfaces or keyboard. Therefore, new and simple solutions are required like the controller I have proposed. They noted that this can be a highly fruitful research avenue.
  • There are number of software tools which can assist the people with MDs in the level of opening and closing a particular application especially on tablet PCs. However, there are limited number of tools to assist them in operating inside a given software application. Developing software to assist this functionality can be highly useful.

There are certain issues and factors to be considered when developing these technologies. The OT noted that spreading of saliva on the controller by the disabled person can be both hygienic and technical issue. This affects specially for Makey-Makey as it is based on conductive materials. Saliva can cause short circuiting and affect the functionality of the controller. She also said that dribbling of fingers is a main issue for people with MDs. While some people need to use low pressure keys, some have issues with shifting from one position to another or with repeated presses which cannot be solved by disabling repeat key function in the PC. Layout of the buttons is also an important aspect since different persons have different orientations. My game controller scored '0' in the aspect of flexibility in placement of buttons as they are fixed to the board using screws!

It will be great if we can use as minimum number of wires as possible to reduce the bulky and messy nature of the device. Wireless connectivity is an ideal way to achieve this target. My set-up included number of wires from controller to the circuit. However, the technician pointed out that it is possible to use a single container for all wires and hide them in a package so the person who uses it do not get confused and not be troubled with wires hanging out! The OT stated that it is wise to start with single or dual button setup if we pursue with the games. The game also should be simple with minimum number of tasks where the person can enjoy without much effort. These games should be customized to accommodate different intellectual levels of the people with disabilities.

Their technician noted that concerning on the hardware aspects is as equally important as the software when developing technologies for the disabled. Poorly designed controller can ruin the value of a software application that can be highly useful for a disabled person. As an example carefully designed media player will be useless if the person cannot control it using the standard keyboard. He also seemed to be interested in a case where a client requested to build a tool to control a DVD player on Apple Mac. He stated that this tool will be developed as an 'add-on' to the Mac instead of replacing the keyboard. Makey-Makey seemed to be a promising starting point for this project. I also requested them to count me in for this project! 

The bottom-line of the discussion is that we cannot build a general version of technology to assist a certain group of disabled people. Requirements of one person vary significantly from another. Therefore, it is highly important to make customizable devices or ones that are tailored to an individual. Makey-Makey offers this flexibility to a considerable level which makes it a highly suitable candidate in developing ATs for the people with MDs. 

On my long bus ride back to city, I was wondering about the number of different aspects we need to consider when developing technologies for the disabled. Most of which I couldn't have unravelled if I did not visit TADQ!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Playing with the Makey-Makey

I have mentioned about the Makey-Makey kit couple of times in my past blog posts. I will describe it little further as I have used it to build a new controller. In Makey-Makey, a circuit is used to map number of computer keyboard keys where a person need to ground the kit through his/her body where he/she can tap on any conductive material which is connected to the Makey-Makey kit to emulate a given key [1]. This conductive material can be any day-to-day object (like an apple, metal lid, water, soil, etc.) which has even a little amount of conductivity. When a person who is grounded taps on a conductive material a circuit is completed and a signal is sent to computer to emulate the associated key. Makey-Makey circuit is connected to the computer through a USB connection and no special software or programming is required. There is no requirement to solder these materials to the circuit as they can be plugged in using crocodile clips. Therefore, it allows designers more higher degree of freedom to design assistive technologies.
Basic configuration of Makey-Makey [1]

I have realized that there are few main factors we need to look at when developing technologies for the disabled who specially lives in remote areas:
  • They need to be easily designed as it will be easier to engage the target population in the designing process which will provide a sense of control for them.
  • They need to be of low cost as it will be difficult for people in remote villages to acquire high end devices which are highly costly in the market.
  • They should enjoyable to use. Most of the state-of-the-art technologies have bulky set-ups which require number of circuits, wires, sensors, etc. and not so pleasent to use!
  • They should be flexible to use. A person with motor disabilities could not operate traditional computer controllers with freedom as their positions are mostly static. It is important that they can place their controllers as they wish in the physical space.
I have tried to adhere to these guidelines as much as possible in developing this controller. I thought of building a game controller with few buttons to play a racing game. Generally to build such a controller we need to purchase buttons specially designed for the disabled. They usually costs about 60 USD on average. So, to build a controller with 6 buttons the cost will be around 240 USD alone for the buttons. Therefore, alternatives are required to be used as buttons. I thought that attaching the buttons to a 'lapboard' would be a good idea. Instead of purchasing a standard lapboard, I decided to use something that we use every day.

Buttons - I realized they need to be large in size and shold be operated by applying minimum pressure. A conductive metal piece will be ideal as I can use it with the Maky-Makey which can be opertaed by a mere touch. I visted few hardware stores around Brisbane to find these 'buttons'. The closest I got was a metal door lid which I thought little too heavy to be used. Then while having a soft drink at a restaurent I wondered 'I miss those soft drinks bottles with lids from my home country'. "lids" - metal lids! Yeah, they will be perfect. Then I visited some bars around the city to collect some metal lids only to find that they don't keep them after removal. So, I decided to order them online from a shop in Melbourne. Just the lids - no bottles! Instead of smaller lids I decided to purchase larger lids (37mm diameter) which are used for large growler bottles. I only had to pay 8 AUD for a dozen of them plus the shipping cost. Then, I had to remove the white paint on top the lid to make it conductive. We have our buttons!

Growler lids used as buttons

Lapboard - I initially thought I can use a plastic lid of a lunch box. So, I went to a supermarket to buy couple of boxes when I came across these photo frames. 'I can use the supporting hardboard of these frames' was the thought. And bought couple of them for 3 AUD each.

I atatched these lids to the hardboard from the photo frame using screws. 6 lids were used to map Arrow keys (4), Escape key and Enter key. Then, I atatched the wires from Makey-Makey to the screws from the bottom. There we go - a game controller! Let's calculate the cost. 4 AUD for lids, 3 AUD for the hardboard, 52 AUD for Makey-Makey kit and around 1 AUD for screws, which gives us a total of 60 AUD. This is the average price of a single button developed for the disabled in the market. Although these lids might be aesthetically unpleasing, they do the same task and it is always possible to make improvements. I am listing down some of the pictures I took during the designing.

Lids, hradboard and other tools used

Fixing a lid to the board
Finished button layout

Makey-Makey kit
Board and Makey-Makey connected

However, I found that Makey-Makey does not have default mappings for Escape and Enter keys. So, I will have to re-program the circuit to achive this. Nevertheless, it was possible to use this controller to play Need for Speed Most Wanted (as shown in the video below). All I had to do was plug the kit to my laptop and enjoy the game! Ground wire from the kit was attached to a metalic wrist watch.

Now, one might ask why not use the keyboard itself. I feel this new controller is interesting to use rather than a standard keyboard. It is made of day-to-day objects which can enhance the aspect of 'fun' and it can be easily developed by any person wthout any programming knowledge. However, I admit that the flexibility is somewhat low in this controller as the buttons are fixed using screws. I feel this can be a starting point where I can add more modification to enhance usability aspects.

[1] Silver, J., Rosenbaum, E., & Shaw, D. (2012). Makey Makey: improvising tangible and nature-based user interfaces. In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (pp. 367–370).