Aakash Sahney and his now-business partner Alex Levy were students at the University of Toronto’s TAG Lab when fate came knocking. The knock seemed mild at first; what resulted has been life-changing, not just for themselves, but for many others in need. The result was assistive communication software programs for i-pads, i-phones, and android devices called MyVoice, and Aakash, a young engineer who co-created the program, is buoyed by the effects of MyVoice every day.
“TAG Lab is a research group within the Human/Computer Interaction Group within the Department of Computer Science at U of T. Alex and I met there – we were researchers at TAG Lab working on a relatively unrelated project. ‘TAG’ stands for Technologies for Aging Gracefully, and the way it happened is, a gentleman was referred to us who’d had a stroke; he had an assistive device because he was unable to speak, and he was referred through a friend that knew our professor. So he came to us and said he was using this very expensive device – it had an expensive monthly lease – and it was extremely difficult and slow to use, which meant he couldn’t speak quickly. It had a very complex, slow, interface. And he asked, ‘Can you guys make something better for me?’
“So it had a really organic beginning from a guy who came to the lab and asked a question.
“So we looked into the assistive communications industry, and what we found was that his problem was not unique to him. It’s been a longstanding problem. People using assistive devices speak at the rate of only eight words per minute, so it’s extremely slow, and when we saw this, for Alex and myself and our team, we were very surprised. Technology’s come a long ways for consumers: we have i-pads, i-phones, we have lots of impressive software, but so little has been done for this particular community that uses assistive technology! Yet they could be really helped by it. So we saw this and really wanted to help them.
“So there were these two big problems: cost; and complexity for the user, giving rise to slowness of use and slow speech rate. Those resulted in another interesting statistic: of the people eligible to use communication aids, only 7% actually use them because they’re so slow to use and so hard to access! And then there’s the need to justify the expense: often if the person’s had a stroke they’ve got to also buy a wheelchair, convert homes, they may have to pay for therapies, there’s a lot of expenses, and they can’t justify it. And on the other side of our user base there’s children, with autism or cerebral palsy or other conditions, and their families are under a lot of financial pressure for things they need – wheelchairs, special education, educational tools, extra care – it adds up, and being required to buy a device when the best available are so expensive: it can be devastating for the kid or the adults. So for the most part we saw there was a very powerful social mission that we wanted to get at, which was helping these people to access technology that’s better, more affordable, and helps them speak much more quickly.”
And they did just that: by developing software that can be loaded onto a user’s preferred digital device. Not only is the technology suddenly easily used, but as observers point out, it’s hip: the social isolation of many with speech disabilities, especially kids, disappears when you get rid of that unwieldy extra device and become the one whose iPhone talks for you.
“One of the ways MyVoice helps them speak more quickly: it’s the first location-aware communication aid. The thing about location-aware vocabularies is it both lets users personalize MyVoice so that they can create a vocabulary relevant to the location they go to; but also they can key in that location and a vocabulary for it gets represented to them automatically.
“For instance, if they walk into a movie theatre, they can get the vocabulary just for movie theatres – popcorn, drinks, tickets, seats – so it really cuts down the time people have to navigate, looking for the right vocabulary. In traditional communication aids, seats would be in a folder called ‘Furniture’, and popcorn would be under ‘Food’, and tickets would be in ‘Media’, and so it takes so long, the situation is long gone by the time you get to address everything.
“So that’s one way MyVoice tries to speed up communication.
“We also tackled high cost: MyVoice costs $180 and is available in the app store and for the android market.
“Because we’re moving to shift this industry from hardware to software, we can also do some other fancy tricks. Another godsend for clinicians is our Supporter Studio – a service for clinicians or family members, or in some cases users, that lets you customize your vocabulary remotely from your computer from anywhere in the world. You can customize your patient vocabulary, or the vocabulary you’d use talking to your sister, or your husband, whoever; you can add pictures, rearrange items, do all that kind of management; and you can do this from a computer from anywhere in the world, instead of having to have the device in front of you.
“Otherwise, typically you have to lug your device to your speech pathologist or clinician’s office, they plug it in using special cables, they operate software they’ve been trained in, and they add a few words you need. With the caseload, clinicians are doing 20-30 people at a time, which means the user’s left without their device for a few days! People have had to FedEx their device across the city to get their customizations in.
“It’s a huge problem, because it slows down the ability of the user to adapt to new scenarios and learn. For kids with autism hoping to get language applications out of MyVoice, or learn language-assisted skills, it can be horribly slow to have to leave their device with a teacher or clinician for a week. We tackle that by letting them tap into MyVoice online.
“Every user gets a free account, with credentials, like logging into email from a web browser. So they or their supporters can go in, see an exact replica of that user’s vocabulary, and add to it online. It’s a big reason that we are where we are today.”
Where they are today is at the helm of one of the fastest-growing, most helpful, systems in the Assistive Communication field. Pretty wonderful for two young graduates who are not yet thirty years old.