There are many wonderful new hands-free inventions out there -- and many of these seem too expensive to be practical. Sometimes a little creativity and common sense can go a long way toward fashioning reasonable solutions for those of us who cannot use our hands. Yet at other times, technology is invaluable, even miraculous.
The Roar of the Dragon
The oldest and perhaps best-known hands-free gadget is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. It's a voice-recognition program that enables speech control of PC-based (as opposed to MAC) computers. You talk into a microphone and the computer listens. That's how I'm writing this article.
If you've tried a Dragon product in years past and been frustrated, consider trying again. Newer editions have fixed many bugs from the older, slower and less accurate models. The latest edition of the most basic version costs less than $100, though for a higher degree of hands-free control I'd recommend the Preferred Edition, which costs roughly twice as much. "I tried earlier versions and gave up on it," says Jim Mullen, a reporter for CBS-TV news in Chicago, and a C2 quad. "I didn't like it. It didn't work for me at all. But it really changed with version 7.0. Now I'm on this thing constantly." The newest version is 8.10, but Mullen is too happy with what he's got to bother upgrading.
A Separate Mouse
Even Dragon loyalists concede it's a good idea to have a separate point-and-click device as a backup -- a hands-free mouse that will allow you to stop and restart Dragon if it jams or crashes, which does happen. This can be useful, too, when Dragon's voice-controlled mouse commands prove frustratingly clunky.
There are several types of hands-free computer pointing devices. Jay Cohen of DisabledOnline.com uses an old trackball he's able to roll with his chin, if positioned properly. It was a standard device on old laptop computers, not specialty adaptive technology, and he scours the Internet to buy them from collectors. Nevertheless, though he can use it to move the pointer around his computer screen, he's unable to click the buttons.
Many other people use a mouthstick-controlled mouse with a sip-and-puff function to render left- and right-clicks. These devices basically work like joysticks for the lips, and can be mounted anywhere on a table. For the past year and a half I've been using the QuadJoy mouse, which at $750 is the cheapest of the hands-free mouse options -- for $250 more, there's an attachment that enables it to work as a game joystick. It does the trick for me. But if you need more precise mousing -- say, for computer graphics -- you might consider Jouse2. It's a similar-looking mechanism, yet at $1,495, it's not for the faint of wallet.
Other options include a range of gizmos that track subtle head or even eye movements to emulate mouse-rolling. They look like little cameras that attach on or near your computer, and they send a signal to the computer when you tip your head a certain way or stare a long time at a particular spot on the screen.
These include the Tracker One, at $995; HeadMouse Extreme, $999 and up; Quick Glance, $4,480 and up; and EyeGaze, starting at $14,900 (if that sounds like a lot of money, that's because it is).
To be sure, it's not perfect. To install the software the first time, you need someone who can type in your name and the activation code, which is printed on the packaging. After that, however, it's all hands-free. Before you can dictate your magnum opus, though, you have to create a "user profile" -- you have to read a short passage into the microphone, so the system can learn your speech patterns. Allow about 20 minutes for this.
Then set your options. An important one is to have the program start up with the microphone on but in "sleep." That way, you don't need someone to click the microphone on for you. All you have to do is say "wake up" or "listen to me."
The software works especially well with Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, because it's programmed with certain shortcut commands. Yet it can be used with Firefox, Netscape Web browsers and most other programs. "It's a huge burden off my shoulders," says Jay Cohen, owner and operator of DisabledOnline.com, a Web portal for people with disability-related interests. Cohen has very little use of his muscles, because of spinal muscular atrophy. "When you're in this position, you don't really know what you can do to contribute to society or make a career for yourself," he says. "But with Dragon, I've been given a whole new avenue, the potential to do something worthwhile. It gives me the independence I've been looking for, and enables me to use the computer whenever and however I want. It's truly incredible!"
Cohen used Dragon to design his Web site, which features a directory of disability products and services, a news feed and real-time interactive chats. He updates the site daily, using Dragon.
The software is always improving, but there are a few caveats.
First, the program is a techno-hog. Even the simplest version requires a Pentium III processor running at 500 MHz or more, 256 MHz RAM, 500 MB of free hard-disk space, and Windows XP. Second, the accuracy of its dictation depends on the quality of the microphone, and the one that comes in the package isn't the best. Many users prefer a USB microphone, which plugs into your computer's USB port and has its own sound-quality control. With that, it doesn't matter how compatible your computer's internal sound card is. Background noise can still be a problem, but a good source for so-called noise-canceling quality microphones is microphones.com. Expect to pay $50 to $150 for a decent mike.
Want to do more with your voice-recognition gear? To the rescue comes SAJE -- Special Adaptations for Just about Everyone -- technology. SAJE makes a wireless headset that can be used as a stand-alone, voice-controlled telephone, a Dragon NaturallySpeaking microphone, and even (for an additional price) a voice-command environmental-control unit to turn on lights, the television and just about any other appliance in your home or office.
The basic version, the Communicator, allows you to interrupt dictation to take a call, or to place a call either by naming a name in your computer directory or dictating a number digit by digit. You can then conduct the conversation through the headset. The device even allows you to dictate digits to get through those annoying telephone menu trees! Setup is relatively quick and easy, too. There's a box that plugs into your computer's USB port, and a software CD to load. That's it. The headset needs no additional training. "Within 10 minutes you're ready to roll," says Joel Tobecksen, SAJE's vice president of customer and dealer relations.
The cost: $425.
Next up from that basic model is the Powerhouse Roommate. Starting at $2,500, it turns an entire room into a voice-powered extravaganza. "Anything with a remote control, you can now command by voice. TV, VCR, DVD, stereo, door openers, adjustable beds -- you name it," says Tobecksen.
Typically, a SAJE sales technician comes to your house and, in part, points every remote control at a special module that reads the infrared signal and associates an appropriate spoken command with each function. Afterward, you never need the old hand-controlled remote again.
"Using our headset or a lapel mike or whatever you prefer, you can say 'TV on' and it will do that. You can even change channels and adjust volume by voice," says Tobecksen.
For those who want or need to go farther, the entire house can be made voice-controlled with SAJE's Powerhouse Home. Starting at $4,500, this does everything the Roommate version can plus it allows you to plug non-remote-controlled devices, such as lamps, into little signal modules that plug into an ordinary wall socket. A diagram on your computer screen lists all these devices. You can then speak a command to your computer, which will send an electrical signal through the house's wiring to turn devices on or off, louder or quieter. "It's a whole-home automation package," sums up Tobecksen.
There is one catch, however. In all of these versions, the microphone needs to be switched on or off to tell it when to listen for commands. Otherwise, you could be in the middle of a conversation and accidentally turn on the blender or dial a phone in Sri Lanka! Mullen, the Chicago TV reporter, saw a demonstration and got discouraged. "How am I going to click that button to switch on the microphone?" he asks.
Tobecksen insists there are viable options for most people. "We sell a 'microlight' switch that you can clip to a shirt collar and chin activate," he says. But if you're not completely satisfied, there is a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Another new option in home-automation, adds Mary Jane Frick, of Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, in Allentown, Pa., is Break Boundaries' Reach. It starts with a 12-inch screen that can attach to a wheelchair; the screen lists appliances that can be remotely controlled. Voice commands, into an attached microphone, head movements, or other signals into an input device, tell it which of the items to turn on or off. Reach starts at a hefty $6,400.
Of course, it's often the simple pleasures that matter most. Seemingly ordinary tasks such as reading a book can drive a quad crazy.
Fortunately, there are a few mechanical book holders that can turn pages. One choice is the Touch Turner, a sort of metallic tray that holds a book in place (someone with good dexterity will have to put the book there). A sip-and-puff or other easily engaged switch tells the gadget when to advance the page. One version lets you turn pages backward, too. It's battery-operated; however, for an extra $60.50 a plug-in adapter is available. The device starts at $924; the reversible model is $1,133.
Pricey as that might sound, the rival GEWA Page Turner is tagged at $3,895 to $4,500. That's partly because it's a more complex mechanism. This device is billed as able to manipulate pages that stick together or crumple, including magazine pages. It can even be used in bed. It holds your reading material behind a transparent plastic board that can be positioned at any angle. As with the other device, a switch is required. Here again, there is flexibility as to the type of switch. In combination with, say, SAJE's Powerhouse devices, it could become a voice-controlled page turner.
As nice as the technological wonder of a voice-controlled page turner might sound, what's the big picture here? Where does one go to compare brands and options? Is it better to wait -- will something better debut in the next year? My search for a hands-free expertise led me next to Jen Mundl, assistive technology specialist at the Courage Center, a transitional rehabilitation facility in Minneapolis. It's her job to connect people with the adaptive devices they need. "Voice recognition is becoming more integrated in society in general," she says. "And the devices that use it are becoming more user-friendly, less expensive and more reliable." A decade ago, she notes, the basic technology was out there but the products weren't "truly usable for someone with a disability. You would end up saying a command 15 times before the machine would recognize it!"
Specifically, she cites Quartet Technology's Voice-Activated Environmental Control Unit, which boasts of being one of the first of its kind. A centrally located microphone listens for commands. An old technology, it nevertheless continues to have fans.
Nowadays, among the devices frequently controlled hands-free are cellular phones. "Many people can control cell phones by voice, without having to purchase any special adaptation," says Mundl. "Unless you want total hands-free access."
It's true. My ordinary cell phone allows me to dial numbers by voice -- but only once. I can't dial a second number that way, without physical intervention, and I can't hang up by voice.
A Good Microphone
The key to good speech-recognition, Mundl maintains, is having a good microphone. That doesn't mean being weighted down with a headset -- several good desktop mikes can ignore extraneous noises while allowing wheelchair-users to pull up and, when they're done, drive away. Mundl recommends www.freedomofspeech.com as a good resource for quality microphones. She especially likes the Insync Buddy and Acoustic Magic Voice Tracker brands for a variety of configurations that can capture speech commands at a distance while screening out background sound. "The Acoustic Tracker can actually reposition its sensors based on where the sound is coming from," she says. Prices vary depending on model and setup.
A persistent problem with electronic hands-free devices is their insatiable appetite for power, in the form of electricity or computer memory. Mundl seems to suggest that sometimes one shouldn't look too far, or make things too complicated, to find hands-free options. "With the PlayStation2, there's a switch that allows you to operate the buttons [in an adaptive way]," she says of the Sony computer-game gadget. For those with low-tech tendencies, Mundl says there's nothing wrong with a card holder -- a block of wood or plastic with diagonal slots cut into it to hold playing cards -- and a mouthstick to slide out the cards.
A single, personal device to turn on the TV, change channels, schedule appointments, play music, make phone calls and possibly even take videos -- all hands-free? It might be premature to expect such an all-inclusive gizmo, but then again, technology does seem to be moving in that direction. "It makes more sense than having separate controls for everything," contends Mundl. "More and more, manufacturers are bundling packages of functionality into single units."
To Mundl, modern cell phones manage to have some voice capabilities without excessive power consumption because the technology is "based on maybe a 50-word vocabulary. We need to expand that so people can not only dial their phones but also program them by voice. The more voice-recognition becomes integrated with everyday devices, the sooner we'll have PDAs that can access environmental controls with voice commands."
Acoustic Magic, 978/440-9384;
Break Boundaries (a division of Home Technologies Corp.), 866/646-6383 or 513/645-4203;
Eyegaze Systems, LC Technologies, Inc., 800/393-4293 or 703-385-7133;