Internet browsers with computer-generated speech and smarter wheelchairs and canes are just some of the innovations making it easier for people with disabilities to interact with the world.
Imagine being able to type simply by looking at the letters on a keyboard. Or being able to hear the Internet "spoken" by a Web browser.
For most people, such innovations could make life more convenient. But for people with disabilities, they could change the way they live.
New high-tech inventions promise to allow quadriplegics, the blind and other people with disabilities to use computers without relying on a keyboard and mouse. Other devices, such as wheelchairs and canes, are getting "smarter," making it easier for people with disabilities to interact with the world.
These advances are spinoffs from other research or adaptations of products developed for the general public. They join the vast array of products that use voice-recognition technology to aid people with disabilities.
"New stuff is coming out almost overnight," said Kirk Behnke, training co-ordinator at Cal State Northridge's Center on Disabilities. "A lot of technology that's out there is now getting transferred to folks with disabilities. We're only limited by our creativity in applying assistive technology to persons with disabilities."
For instance, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are turning an eye-tracking device - developed to help astronauts dock their spaceships in orbit - into a tool to allow people who can't type with their hands to use their eyes instead.
The system uses an infrared beam to illuminate the user's face and a small video camera to record the position of the eyes. It calibrates itself while the user stares at a series of markers that appear at specific locations on the computer screen. Then the markers are replaced with an on-screen keyboard.
By moving his eyes, the user can direct a small red dot around the keyboard and "type" a specific letter by holding his gaze on it for half a second. Other commands, such as saving or printing a file, can be executed by looking at particular places on the screen. In addition, the system could be rigged to control household appliances and to play prerecorded phrases such as "Hello, my name is Clayton," said Clayton LeBaw, technical manager and specialist in imaging technology who is leading the project.
Similar systems are commercially available. But JPL engineers expect theirs to be seven times lighter and 10 times cheaper - at 20 pounds and $2,500 (all figures in U.S. dollars), Mr. LeBaw said.
The system, which is expected to be available later this year, will also have significantly improved performance.
"If you think about the family of a sufferer and the demands on their time, this could be a big help," Mr. LeBaw said.
If that system is too bulky, there's the CyberLink Interface headband from Brain Actuated Technologies, a small company in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The company took technology originally developed to give jet pilots hands-free control of cockpit switches and put it in a cloth headband that can act as keyboard and mouse.
Brain Actuated Technologies ultimately plans to sell its headbands to video game enthusiasts as a high-tech alternative to the joystick. But, at the request of a teacher with a paralyzed student, the company first developed a version for quadriplegics, Andrew Junker, company president, said.
CyberLink contains three plastic sensors that measure electrical signals from the brain and from slight muscle movements in the forehead. Those signals are converted into digital signals that are fed into a computer and split into about a dozen readings that are displayed on a computer screen.
The trick for users is to channel their brainwaves and subtle muscle movements so they can control the readings on the screen. Brain Actuated Technologies designed a series of 10 computer games to help people learn to use CyberLink. Once they've mastered the games, users can type and move a cursor anywhere on the screen.
"It's actually a lot of fun," said Bruce Davis, a quadriplegic in Florham Park, N.J., who started using CyberLink nearly a year ago after he became frustrated with voice-recognition software. "You can get a cursor to go left or right or up and down just by raising your eyebrow."
CyberLink went on sale last fall for $1,495, but the price could drop as low as $299 when it can be sold to video game players as well as to people with disabilities, Mr. Junker said.
Typing may be less of a problem for the visually impaired, but it can be difficult for them to appreciate the text, pictures and graphics on the Web. A nonvisual Web browser called pwWebSpeak alleviates some of that problem with the help of computer-generated speech.
The $150 browser from Trenton, N.J.-based Productivity Works Inc. reads HTML code - the language of the Web - just like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer does. But it displays text in large, plain letters and doesn't bother to download time-consuming graphics. Instead, it reads the site aloud as the user punches computer keys to move around the page.
If the synthesized speech is hard to understand, the user can hit a key to have the browser spell the confusing word. Other keys allow users to skip around within a page or type in the address of a new page.
"It's very friendly software," said Bill Pasco, who is blind and uses pwWebSpeak for an hour or two each day. "It definitely makes it easier, and I've spent more time looking around (on the Web) as a result."
Pasco, director of the radio reading service Sun Sounds of Arizona in Tempe, is gearing up to start using a new Productivity Works product called pwTelephone, which allows people without computers to listen to Web sites over the phone. By dialing a special phone number and punching in a pass code, visually impaired and physically disabled people will be able to listen to books, newspapers and magazines from the radio channel, he said.
Blind people are also getting help from sensors that are increasingly small and reliable. At the University of Michigan, sensors that measure the distance to the object closest to a person are improving on the traditional white cane.
The eight-pound GuideCane has a motorized, steerable foot with ultrasonic sensors on all sides. Users push a small joystick near the handle to tell the cane where they want to go. The cane complies, steering the user around obstacles.
"It feels like walking a dog," said Johann Borenstein, an associate research scientist who heads Michigan's Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Mobile Robotics Lab.
"If the dog pulls you to one side, you can't avoid going that way."
The GuideCane has been in development for three years, but the sensors aren't yet reliable enough for general use, Mr. Borenstein said. When they do come on the market, he expects them to cost about $3,000.
At JPL, robotics researcher Paolo Fiorini is using sensors to build a wheelchair that can navigate through crowds. Using an algorithm developed for air traffic controllers, the chair constantly processes feedback from a ring of sonar sensors and a $4,000 laser to calculate the position and velocity of the objects around it.
"We make a map of the environment every second and direct the chair to go where there are no (anticipated obstacles), and that's the path," Fiorini said.
"The person in the chair puts in the direction and speed they want, and the wheelchair does the rest." That allows users to avoid having to perform exhaustive repetitive manoeuvres to weave in and out of crowds, he said.
In a recent test, the wheelchair found its way through a crowded German train station in about twice the time it would take to traverse the area on foot. But in its present form, the chair is too expensive to sell. Fiorini and JPL are looking for companies in the United States to help turn the chair into a commercially viable product, he said.
Meanwhile, researchers at UCLA and JPL are collaborating on a device that will help people with spinal cord injuries learn to walk again.
Traditionally, physical therapists lift a patient's legs and monitor their progress as they regain strength. But researchers want to use a robotic device that can ensure that the patient's legs move properly.
It also gathers precise feedback about the pace of recovery, said Reggie Edgerton, vice-chairman of UCLA's physiological sciences department.
"This will speed up recovery because they will learn to accomplish their stepping quicker and more independently," said Mr. Edgerton, who has collaborated with JPL for two years.
The treatment would also be much more affordable because it would not require a physical therapist, he said.
JPL is pursuing the research because "long-duration exposure to micro-gravity environments results in the same problem as spinal cord injuries," said Jim Wiess, a liaison officer and senior technologist, who keeps track of JPL's various projects to aid people with disabilities.
In other words, the system could also be useful for astronauts who spend long periods in space, such as an extended stint on the International Space Station, or on a mission to Mars.
Back on Earth, the ReadingPen is helping people with dyslexia or other learning disabilities.
The pen uses a laser scanner to identify the shapes of letters on a page, then a custom computer chip uses optical-character-recognition technology to convert the shapes into words. The words are displayed on a 1-by-2 1/2-inch screen along the side of the pen, while a computer-generated voice speaks the words. With the push of a button, the pen will repeat a word syllable by syllable.
Several hundred ReadingPens have been sold since they went on the market late last year, said David Thomasson, director of marketing for the educational products division of Seiko Instruments USA Inc. in Torrance, Calif. The pens weigh four ounces and cost $300.
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