HIGH TECH COMMUNICATION DEVICES
“If you want to understand how it feels like to be communication impaired, just go to any meeting and pretend you cannot speak. You can use your hands but not pencil and paper, because these are tools that severely disabled, verbally impaired people cannot use. You’ll be surrounded by people speaking in front of you, around you, below you, through you, or even for you, but they won’t speak with you. You’ll be ignored, and in the end it will just feel like being a piece of furniture”. – Prof. Mario Melazzini, ALS patient
Augmentative and alternative communication systems have been used for years to enable communication for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patients, even in the most advanced stages of the disease, when only little residual movements are retained, often in one body area alone.
Such systems are based on a hardware writing devices, often a laptop fitted with a special software, and they mostly work based on letter scanning methods. This way, they can be controlled with a single switch through residual body movements, as long as these are retained.
In the late stages of the disease eye movements are often the only means that is left to a patient to maintain connections with the surrounding environment, though he or she is still aware and eager to communicate, to ask questions on the disease, discuss treatment options with his/her doctor, to tell family members or friends that he/she loves them, and to socialize by exchanging thoughts and opinions with other people.
In such extreme scenarios, technology nowadays can do a great deal to enable patients to stay connected with the world around them.
Eye-controlled communication devices were designed expressly for that purpose; thanks to a videocamera connected to a pc and a software, they enable patients to write, surf the internet, read and send e-mails, operate lighting and household equipment, and much more.
Leading-edge high tech communication equipment are fitted with a high resolution videocamera that tracks pupils’ movements in real time, and through the software, they detect which screen area is being looked at with outstanding accuracy. When used in combination with a virtual keyboard, eye-controlled devices deliver excellent results: to write, patients just need to be able to look at letters on the screen.
Such devices are currently available in a price range from 20,000 to 24,000 Euros. Cheaper but less accurate and reliable versions are now being marketed for about 7000-8000 Euros.
The technical features of the above-described systems are listed hereunder:
Remote, binocular eye-tracking system, with head movement tolerance, quick self-calibration –less than 1.5 minutes-data recording capability, self calibrating when in use. The system is also equipped with a communication software suite to send/receive e-mails (including, if needed, JPG attachment management), surf the net, make VoIP phone calls if combined with a TTS –text to speech- system and a video keyboard, manage an image/text archive through an easy-to-use file manager, a visual agenda (that is including pictures) to store and manage contacts, and an easy-to –use text reader for txt files. All of the applications listed are fitted with a simple, intuitive user interface and can be controlled simply using the eyes (eye movements).
The system must also be equipped with a set of eye-controlled virtual keyboards -that is, interfacing with the eye-tracker – an integrated voice synthesizer and a customized phone/mail account.
Taking into account the special physical needs of the patient, as well as with a view to a more timely system customization and calibration, a procedure for remote technical assistance for changing the entire set of working parameters must also be envisaged.
THE “VIALLI E MAURO” FOUNDATION /AISLA ONLUS JOINT PROJECT
To date, with huge financial efforts Aisla Onlus has already given 13 “I Able My Tobii” communication devices on a free loan for use to patients who urgently needed them.
Moreover, thanks to the work done by Aisla jointly with the Ministry for Health, the Conferenza Stato-Regioni (Italian Conference of State and Regions) has recently approved the allocation of a further 10 million Euros, to be distributed among Italian regions for the purchase of more high tech communication devices for ALS patients.
AISLA onlus intends to buy another 10 communication devices available on a free loan for use, 5 of which will be bought with a contribution from the Fondazione Vialli e Mauro onlus.