Over the last several years I've been dealing with various stages of disability thanks to ALS. My goal is to share solutions and review various products/tools/devices that I have found particularly helpful.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A First Prototype…

One of the unfortunate side effects of dealing with ALS is having to deal with the progressive loss of balance. Usually resulting in the unexpected face plant. In my particular case, my balance is still pretty good but I am prone to falling from time to time and as most of my losses in my hands and arms. I am unable to properly protect myself in a fall. And once down, getting up is starting to become rather difficult. I have had a few occasions were fallen and required help to get back on my feet.

Nevermind the subject of risking more serious injury…

So this got me thinking. What happens when I'm by myself and I fall somewhere in the house and I'm unable to get up? How do I call for help?

Well, there are for sure services like the life alert bracelets and the "help by fallen and I can't get up" panic button.

This got me thinking, sure I could sign up for one of the services. But I already have a smart phone which I use quite regularly for my home automation systems and my television remote control. Not to mention it has a Siri voice recognition, which is one of the reasons why I bought it. So do I really need the life link service? Other than the built-in fall detection, my iPhone will cover my needs. Thus the question becomes, how do I keep up with my all a time? With nonfunctioning hands, I need to keep it attached to my person while remaining accessible. Not to mention, anything attached to my belt, one involving a clip to dock the iPhone are pretty much out of the question. I don't have the range of motion to access my belt, nor the dexterity to unsnap the phone from a clip.

Now, I bought my grab it pack because it had the thigh pocket for the cell phone for just these reasons when I'm out of the house. But it's not quite as practical to wear all day while I'm home. Consequently I started thinking about something similar to a fighter pilots G suit. Below is an image on the right that this pilot is flight information strapped to her thighs. I realized that this is actually a pretty safe place to carry my iPhone. Should I fall, it'll remain accessible and it is very unlikely that on the top of my thigh my iPhone will receive a direct impact. And I know from experience with my grab it pack  that Siri will work just fine at this distance (assuming there's not too much ambient noise, but that's the same anywhere)

How could I do this with my smart phone? What could I adapt?

It turns out that Belkin has an armband product to hold iPhones for when you go to the gym. It is quite secure and will allow you to use the touchscreen through a plastic cover. It is however sized for an arm and not a thigh… Just a bit of a size difference, even with atrophy. Nonetheless, this is pretty close to what I'm looking for and reasonably easy to adapt. It was also reasonably inexpensive, around C$25. It will definitely work as a first prototype.

So with the help of my re-adaptation facility, we went about extending the length of the armband strap so it would fit my thigh. We replace the Velcro with a one-inch snapdragon buckles make it easier for me to remove, and less fidgety than messing with Velcro, i.e. Once I set the size, I don't have to adjust it every time. We also added a vertical loop so I can attach it to my belt or might grab it back if I so choose. The vertical strap is essential to prevent the armband from sliding down my leg. Don't want it to be to type all the time…

I know, looks a bit dorky
This is what we came up with...

I realize that this looks a bit dorky. But the fact of the matter is these days I have to focus on function over fashion and if it gives me a degree of ease of access and safety within my own home… So be it. Dorky.

Now, this works reasonably well. But not perfectly. First of all, in order for the iPhone to fit within the Belkin case it has to be removed from any other case. E.g. the iPhone has to be "naked" to fit properly. Also is an extremely tight fit making it nearly impossible for me to insert or remove the iPhone to the Belkin case myself.

The plastic cover over the screen does work and allows me to use the screens touch functions. However it is not completely flush to the screen, removing some of its sensitivity. It is also a little bit tricky to properly access the home button. But not impossible.

Finally, the strap from the hold and position from my belt is essential. That said, options of where to attach it to the Belkin case were very limited and the only place it could be attached without compromising the accessibility of the iPhone in the case causes a slight rotation of the case when it's attached to my leg making it just a bit uncomfortable. What do you expect, first prototype ;-)

I really should mention that I am actively considering getting one of those life alert devices and it does have some significant benefits that should not be overlooked. One of the reasons why I'm looking into this is that my needs are not quite there yet and I really do want to minimize the amount of devices and things I have to drag around with me. I'm looking at the phone as a viable option because I carry it all over the place. I use it to control my TV and my home automation system. And of course, Siri for communications.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Voice Banking with Model Talker

Although that I'm not showing any definitive changes to my voice at the moment (that I cannot attribute to paranoia anyway) and knowing the progression of ALS, I decided that it would be wise to create a voice bank so that when that unfortunate day does come.  I'll still be able to communicate using speech to text technology and it will sound somewhat like me.

Creating a voice bank is best done when your voice is still clear and strong. Definitely something that should be done before symptoms start affecting your speech patterns. Reason being is any speech impediment you may develop from ALS will consequently be recorded in the voice bank. Not to mention that the recording process is actually quite long. It can take quite a significant amount of time and effort to get done properly. And even not showing symptoms, it was at times quite fatiguing.

I used a software called model talker which required me to record about 1600 phrases. Most of the phrases were quite simple, with many references to the Wizard of Oz. There were however some reasonably challenging tongue twisters. This software then takes all the phonemes and uses them to create a text to speech file. This file can then be used within the Windows text-to-speech systems or (so I'm told) used with other hardware such as Dyna Vox.

say hello to my little voice bank
Model talker is presently in beta phase. So you can expect the possibility of some instabilities at times. Personally I did not counter many of these. The issues I did have had to do with setting up the recording in my own environment. For some reason any microphone I tried on my home computer was also recording a white noise or hum. After trying multiple microphones I could not isolate the cause. Best I can figure is this EMF field somewhere in my house, or noise from the power bar which is disrupting my audio recording (for example, check this video. The noise in my recording was not quite so pronounced enough to disrupt the quality of the recording). This is not something I could blame on model talker. I ended up having to record my voice and my rehabilitation facility. It was a bit inconvenient to go there so frequently, but I felt it was a necessity to create the voice bank. Recording their went quite smoothly.

The people at model talker were extremely helpful and responsive. Whenever there was a problem on the initial calibrations they would get back to me very quickly. Also once I submitted the final files, I was expecting it to take up two weeks to get back. They had my full voice bank ready for download by the next afternoon.

On a side note, if you need to make a recording of your synthesized voice as I did for this blog and you're using speech recognition for dictation… Be sure to turn off the microphone for speech recognition. I forgot to do so the first time and the speech recognition was actually dictating from my synthesized voice… LOL!
This download included two versions of playback software which could be used in addition to the Windows text-to-speech functionalities. So far, my best results seem to have been from using model talker 2. I was a little dissatisfied with the initial playbacks and found my voice didn't sound enough like me to make the effort worthwhile. In particular there seemed to be too much of a gurgle. However after tweaking some of the settings (unfortunately model talker 2 didn't include any documentation for this) I found that setting the phonetic target cost down to about 20 made for a significant improvement in the gurgling issue. I'll probably be able to improve on it further once I figure out more about the other settings.

Here, listen for yourself ;-)
can you hear me now?

However, being beta I did have some difficulties in recording the samples. The record option fails and changes to the synthesis settings do not seem to be retained between executions. That being said, it is presently free for you to create your own voice bank.