Two Ann Arbor companies, Atomic Object and Koester Performance Research (KPR), recently collaborated to create a tool called Scanning Wizard that makes it easier for people with severe disabilities to use computers and smartphones.
Technology already exists to help people with severe disabilities, including those who can't speak, to use adaptive "switches" that can be operated with a small muscle twitch to navigate online, write documents, or send texts on their smartphones. If a user is writing an essay, for instance, the switch will activate a menu and then do something similar to playing "20 questions" with the user, according to KPR founder Heidi Koester.
"The computer starts going through groups of items, and when the user hits the switch, it chooses the thing you wanted and narrows it down from there," Koester says.
The process is complicated, and it takes a long time to do anything with these menus, even when they're tailored to the individual users. Currently, many switch systems allow the user to write at about one word per minute.
"Imagine someone being in on a conversation at one word a minute," she says. "That makes it hard for them to participate on a full basis with their peers and do the things they want to do."
The innovation that Scanning Wizard brings to the table is making the fine-tuning process smarter and more efficient. The application is called a "wizard" because it walks a user – or more typically the user's caregiver, relative, or teacher – step by step through the process of tailoring the switch system's settings to the user.
Koester says she wanted the app to be available as a simple website that would be accessible to the average person with no special training. Atomic Object managing partner John Fisher notes that, after the first online session, the application is cached and can be used offline in areas where internet access might be spotty.
Small pilot studies showed that Scanning Wizard allowed users to double their text entry speed on average. Fisher says increasing speed from one word per minute to two or three per minute doesn't seem like much.
"But imagine if you could type three times faster. How would that impact your life?" Fisher says.
Koester came to Atomic Object with her idea and some development experience, but she wasn't a professional app developer.
"We worked with her to define what her high-level priorities were, came up with a comprehensive design for the software, and built the application," Fisher says. "We delivered the first version of the product and handed the code base over to her, and she enhanced it with the knowledge she'd gained working alongside our team."
The application is available for free at scanningwizard.com.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Atomic Object.