DIY tools TalkBox and SenseBox help people with disabilities to communicate

The new devices, developed by a collaborative team based in the US, Canada, and Kenya, are easy to use and allow people in different cultural contexts to quickly enhance their ability to communicate.

Figure 1. The first prototype (top left) consists of a computer (not shown) and a Makey Makey board connected to a hand-made foam board fitted with aluminum foil touch-switches and labeled with replaceable printed symbols. TalkBox (bottom left and in use, right) consists of a Raspberry Pi connected to a capacitive touch sensor, speakers and a hand-made foam board with aluminum foil touch switches. Foad Hamidi, Melanie Baljko, Toni Kunic, Ray Feraday 2014. Designing Participatory Futures Lab UMBC

Sarah Hansen, EurekAlert! February 11, 2020

Researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) have developed do-it-yourself (DIY) assistive technology prototypes that are revolutionizing how people with disabilities can access tools that will help them interact with the world.

Foad Hamidi, assistant professor of information systems, and his collaborators at York University in Canada and the Pamoja Community Based Organization in Kenya have created research-based assistive technology platforms for people with different abilities and in different cultural contexts to learn how to use simple computers to communicate. Importantly, the development of platform prototypes has been grounded in close collaboration among researchers and community members in Kenya and the U.S. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has published the results in IEEE Pervasive Computing.

In the field of assistive technology, costs often prohibit many people with disabilities and their families from accessing useful communication technologies. Existing tools that facilitate communication are especially hard to individualize and can be costly, explains Hamidi. However, computers have steadily become less expensive to distribute and easier to use. This makes computer-based assistive technologies more accessible to people with disabilities, both inside and outside of the U.S.

TalkBox. Foad Hamidi Youtube Sep 3, 2015

Hamidi and his team have worked to develop and test two platforms: SenseBox and TalkBox. These platforms are open source and only require a Raspberry Pi (an inexpensive microcomputer), low-cost sensors, and a speaker to operate.

TalkBox allows users to communicate by touching images on an attached surface to play audio files stored within the system. The images and sounds can be customized during assembly, depending on an individual’s unique needs. For example, TalkBox can be adapted to fit on a wheelchair, and it can include individualized visual elements. The TalkBox could display illustrations of faces showing different expressions, which a student could use to express an emotion. Numerous adjustments are available to the user, making the technology extremely customizable.

TalkBox was successfully used in Kenya by a special education teacher who was able to input the names of all of his students onto the device to be used in class. This application of the device led to a noticeable increase in participation and inclusion. The success of the tool within that classroom has already led to an increased interest in the technology for other potential stakeholders in Kenya. The researchers hope to work with community members in Kenyan universities and healthcare facilities to expand the availability of this tool, and help stakeholders learn how to use it.

SenseBox relies on a similar model of stimuli being translated into audio, but it operates using tactile objects, which are recognized by sensors. These tactile objects are embedded with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, similar to how objects are tagged in stores. The objects can be 3-D printed, which permits extensive customization.

In the US, SenseBox was used by a speech-language pathologist and a non-verbal client with low vision and autism spectrum disorder. The client was able to play his favorite music by holding the desired CD case to the device, which was a major stepping stone in his communication. Previously, he had difficulty using other devices to achieve this same goal of playing his favorite artist.

SenseBox: A DIY Prototyping Platform to Create Audio Interfaces for Therapy (TEI2019). SenseBox is a Raspberry Pi-based system that plays back audio files by detecting objects embedded with Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. SenseBox is designed as a prototyping platform for use by music therapists, teachers and people with disabilities themselves to build customized and accessible audio interfaces. Foad Hamidi. Youtube Feb 10, 2019

The success of these DIY devices rests on the fact that people with limited experience using technology can quickly learn how to use the tools and teach others how to use them. Hamidi and his research partners see their close collaboration with those who will be using TalkBox and SenseBox as essential to ensuring the tools are tailored to meet their needs.

The researchers continue to explore how best they can scale up the use of these new tools to support people with disabilities who are seeking new ways to communicate in a broad range of cultural contexts.

Source Univerity of Maryland Baltimore County via EurekAlert! AAAS


DIY Assistive Technology Prototyping Platforms: An International Perspective, Hamidi F. IEEE Pervasive Computing, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 12-16, 1 Oct-Dec 2019. DOI: 10.1109/MPRV.2019.2947749

  Further reading

SenseBox: A DIY Prototyping Platform to Create Audio Interfaces for Therapy, Hamidi F, Kumar S, Dorfman M, Ojo F, Kottapalli M, Hurst A. 2019. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI’19), New York, NY: ACM Press, 25-34. DOI: 10.1145/3294109.3295633

A DIY Communication Board Case Study, Hamidi F, Baljko M, Kunic T, Feraday R. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 9(4), 2015, 187-198.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Assistive Technology: A Communication Board Case Study, Hamidi, F, Baljko M, Kunic T, Feraday R. In Computers Helping People with Special Needs, ICCHP 2014. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 8548. Springer, Cham. Miesenberger K, Fels D, Archambault D, Peňáz P, Zagler W. (eds) Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs – ICCHP 2014. 287-294. Berlin: Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-08599-9_44

The Use of Working Prototypes for Participatory Design with People with Disabilities, Haworth B, Usman M, Baljko M, Hamidi F. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs – ICCHP’16, 2016, 134-141. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-41264-1_19

Participatory Design of DIY Digital Assistive Technologies in Western Kenya, Hamidi F, Mbullo P, Onyango D, Hynie M. McGrath S, Baljko M. 2018. Proceedings of the 2nd African Human-Computer Interaction Conference (AfriCHI’18), New York, NY: ACM Press, 78-88. DOI: 10.1145/3283458.3283478

Safe Spaces and Safe Places: Unpacking Technology-Mediated Experiences of Safety and Harm with Transgender People, Scheuerman M, Branham S, Hamidi F. 2018. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, CSCW, Article 155. (Recognition of Contribution to Diversity and Inclusion). DOI: 10.1145/3274424

Shifting Expectations: Understanding Youth Employees’ Handoffs in a 3D Print Shop, Easley W, Hamidi F, Lutters W, Hurst A. 2018. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, CSCW, Article 47. DOI: 10.1145/3274316

Who Should Have Access to my Pointing Data? Privacy Tradeoffs of Adaptive Assistive Technologies, Hamidi F, Poneres K, Massey A, Hurst A. 2018. Proceedings of the 20th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS ’18), New York, NY: ACM Press, 203-216. DOI: 10.1145/3274316

Youth Attitudes Towards Assessment Tools in After-school Informal Learning and Employment Training Programs, Hamidi F, Easley W, Grimes S, Grimes S, Hurst A. 2018. Proceedings of the 2018 American Society of Engineering Education Conference and Exposition (ASEE ’18).

Gender Recognition or Gender Reductionism? The Social Implications of Automatic Gender Recognition Systems, Hamidi F, Scheuerman M, Branham S. 2018. Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’18), New York, NY: ACM Press, 8:1-8:13 (Best Paper Award, Top 1% of submissions). DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3173582

Assessment Tools for an Afterschool Youth Maker Program, Hamidi F, Grimes S, Grimes S, Wong C, Hurst A. 2017. Proceedings of the 2017 Conference Creativity and Fabrication in Education (FabLearn’17), 12:1-12:4. DOI: 10.1145/3141798.3141811

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