Failure to communicate? Not with this device

What began as a grant to a University of Texas at Arlington research team might enable hundreds of Texans with disabilities to lead more independent lives. UT Arlington researchers hope the personal portable devices (PPDs) they have developed will one day be as common and affordable as cellphones.

Computer science and engineering Professor Farhad Kamangar is leading a project that combines computing, robotics, communication technologies and social science to help people with disabilities stay in touch. The result is a handheld wireless unit that can be tailored to counter the limitations that keep users from operating cellphones or personal digital assistants.

If the user is blind, the PPD beeps or vibrates as an alert and automatically converts information to speech and reads it out. For deaf users, it can flash or vibrate and display the same messages as written text with customized letter size. A foot pedal can operate the device for users with no control of their hands. Other assistive technology devices used in connection with the PPDs will broaden the user scope even more.

“The overall concept is to provide information access to people with disabilities,” said Manfred Huber, a CSE assistant professor working on the project.  “We started out asking, ‘What are the limitations of existing cellphones and PDAs for people with different disabilities?’ Around that we developed our concept of a uniform software structure and a set of customizable services.”

A $2.2 million Texas Health and Human Services Commission grant funds the research, which began two years ago in collaboration with the Dallas-based Center for Computer Assistance to the Disabled (C-CAD) and SensorLogic, a machine-to-machine communications company in Richardson.

Clients and care providers in North and East Texas are testing the first PPDs. 

“We have approximately 50 who are using and evaluating the devices,” Dr. Kamangar said. “These users are telling us what they like and dislike about the devices and what additional features they would like to see. We are using this feedback to improve our design.”

Kamangar plans to give 600 devices to individuals in selected Texas counties in what he calls the project’s Beta phase.

PPDs rely on existing communications infrastructures but operate through their own Web servers and databases. They enable users to access information in a way that is customized to their needs. Current users and care providers can use the devices and the Web servers to send reminders that can require an acknowledgment or ask the recipient to select from a list of possible responses.

For example, a nurse could send a message causing the PPD to remind a user at the appropriate times to take the right medication. The device could alert the nurse if the user doesn’t respond. Similarly, messages could be used to change or schedule appointments or to remind users of upcoming meetings.

The messages would be delivered in different ways, depending on the user’s preferences and schedule. If someone is asleep, then the message could be delivered after he wakes up.

PPDs promise fun, too. Future devices will provide news, entertainment, chat capabilities, job fairs, even bus schedules.

“Over time, we plan to make the devices more context aware,” Kamangar said, “giving them the capability to sense and react to the environment—for example, by automatically adjusting the volume in a noisy environment or by detecting if a user fell down and automatically calling for help.”

And the UT Arlington researchers are doing some communicating of their own. Dr. Huber said the team is talking to “a number of companies, including most of the cellphone providers,” to see if they’ll make the PPD service widely available. The developers are optimistic; though limited, the feedback has been positive.

“I think the users really like the idea of the PPD,” Huber said.  “These devices could have a real impact for many people.”

— Danny Woodward