'UB Talker' Provides Independence for Those with Speech, Motor Disabilities

By Donna Longenecker

Release Date: August 7, 2003 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Students in an upper-level computer software engineering class at the University at Buffalo are helping to solve a real-world problem -- and restore a sense of independence to persons with speech and motor disabilities -- by designing augmentation communication devices.

The students have produced UB Talker, a laptop computer with a touch-screen interface and synthetic voice that helps its users communicate and comes in models for both adults and children

The ongoing project began in March 2002 when senior students were asked by Kris Schindler and Michael Buckley, lecturers in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to design a speech-enhanced, computer-aided device that would allow David, a 43-year-old nursing home resident who had suffered a stroke 20 years ago, to communicate.

"David can't speak; he's in a wheelchair and has very limited motor skills," says Schindler. "Mentally, he's no different than you or I -- it's just very hard for him to communicate. He has a sheet of paper and communicates by pointing out letters and letter groups. It's frustrating and very time-consuming."

During the first year of the assignment in 2002, 120 students formed 14 design teams. At the end of that year, Buckley and Schindler took the best ideas from the class and asked the students who generated them to join the newly formed UB Technology Group to continue work on the UB Talker and develop other socially relevant projects for local not-for-profit organizations in need of technology.

"There were still too many good ideas to let the project drop, so we went to the Center for Handicapped Children in Cheektowaga and approached them about doing a child version of the UB Talker. They allowed us to use them as a testing ground," says Buckley.

"In the spring of 2003, we reassigned the project with new requirements to meet the needs of children with cerebral palsy, both those with and without reading skills. Special requirements were written to include children with visual impairment. Students responded with interest, commitment, intensity and philanthropy," says Buckley.

"The clients and users of the systems have participated in the classroom experience as both recipients and teachers. The program has enhanced the school's reputation in the special education community," he notes.

Helene Kershner, lecturer and assistant chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, also taught the software engineering class, working with project teams during the semester the child talker was developed.

Both the adult and child versions of the UB Talker combine commercial-grade technology updated for ease of use and better voice synthesis, Buckley explains.

Moreover, he adds, the Talker is much more affordable than speech augmentation devices currently on the market and costing between $800 and $10,000, and may be of poor quality.

"They aren't suitable for use in any environment, and programming a commercial device is extremely time-consuming," Buckley points out.

Even worse, says Schindler, a user like David couldn't program one -- a therapist, often with a busy workload, would have to do it. David, however, can program the UB Talker.

Unlike the commercial products, the UB Talker features phrase prediction -- words and phrases that are used frequently automatically are stored in the computer -- and it is time sensitive. If David wants to go to lunch and begins typing that phrase, a list of phrases appear on the screen before he even has completed the task, and he can finish the thought with one or two clicks or touches. Entire phrases are stored in the computer according to the time of day they are most likely to be used or can be programmed according to time-sensitive needs, eliminating tedious and repetitious typing.

"If you're talking about food at eight in the morning, it knows you're talking about breakfast," says Buckley.

One of the most unique and useful features of the device is its story, or lecture, mode, which allows users to participate in more natural, give-and-take conversations. When David was testing the device, he could input questions, comments or conversation topics into the laptop before the UB students arrived and play those comments either one at a time and wait for their response or play them all at once.

"If he knew we were coming in that day and wanted to tell us there were certain things that were not working with the Talker, or certain things that needed to be changed, he could put these phrases in the lecture mode and when we arrived he wouldn't have to construct the phrases," says Buckley. One of the goals for the child Talker, he adds, is for a user to be able to "speak" a phrase in three clicks or less. "Three clicks and you've got lunch," says Buckley.

In fact, Buckley relates, on the day that David first received the UB Talker, he called Buckley at home later that night.

"I couldn't be there when they delivered the computer to David. Late that night the phone rings and there's this robotic voice on the other end of the phone talking to me. David had it programmed in the lecture mode. He said, 'I'm new at using the device so it's going to take me a little time to (do this).' He hadn't spoken on the phone in 20 years and he calls me," says Buckley.

The Talker, he says, restores a sense of freedom and independence to its users. "It's a quality-of-life issue," he explains. "It restores relationships."