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Paul Hawes, AbilityNet Paul Blenkhorn, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology
Over the last few years, computers have become a far more attractive way of making a communication aid. Indeed, most AAC companies now have products based on PCs or Macintosh systems.
Despite these advances, there are still problems with the traditional disk-based computer as a communication aid, notably in the areas of battery life, robustness and start-up time.
In this presentation, we will examine the state of Windows CE devices, and look at the suitability of various models for AAC use. We will also look at work by the authors and others to produce Windows CE based software for AAC, both for text and symbol users.
Windows CE is a new version of the Windows operating system, designed specifically for use on low power portable devices, such as palmtop computers and mobile phones. Many manufacturers are now using Windows CE to produce a range of ultra-light laptops and touch screen machines.
It looks very much like Windows 95/98 but is simpler. Windows CE machines come with cut down versions of the main Microsoft Office programs, called Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, and so on. Most have a touch sensitive screen and a built in modem.
CE machines do not normally have a hard disk. Instead, they rely on memory cards.
In short, a typical Windows CE computer is similar to a PC, except that power has been sacrificed for convenience. As AAC software rarely uses the full power of a PC, this is excellent news for the AAC community.
Ever since the development of portable computers and speech synthesisers, people with a speech disability have used computer programs as a means of communication. Such a solution has a number of advantages; integration with other computer applications (like word processing and the Internet), a greater number of people with useful technical knowledge to support the user and cost effectiveness.
Naturally, this was especially attractive to people who already used computers for other purposes, or who were in an environment where computers were commonly used.
Early problems of lack of robustness, poor displays, short battery life and the need for external speech synthesisers have been greatly reduced as the design of mass-produced computers has improved. As a result, computer based systems are far more common than in the past.How computers have become more effective for communication
In recent times the design of portable computers has altered radically. A number of advances in both hardware and software have helped to improve their usefulness as AAC devices.Software text to speech
No longer is it necessary to use a separate (and expensive) hardware speech synthesiser. Most computers, including portables, now have integral sound. This, coupled with very high quality text to speech generated in software alone, allows the machine to talk without the inconvenience and expense of a separate synthesiser.Power supply and management
Newer power management systems allow machines to work for longer on a charge. Smart power down modes allow the machine to conserve power when not in use, yet to be ready for action without the delay of rebooting. Also, automobile adapters allow the battery of a powered wheelchair to run a computer indefinitely with no danger of damaging the machine.Better displays
For text users, the newer TFT displays allow a system to be used in most lighting conditions. For those who need symbols, the availability of good quality colour means easier comprehension of the meaning of symbols and the function of cells.Robustness
Most portable machines are now far more durable as a result of the development of special components, notably small hard drives with high shock ratings. Many machines are designed for vehicle mounting, and some are ruggedised to a military specification.Physical characteristics
The most dramatic development is the recent availability of touch screen portables with colour and sound. As well as offering a truly integrated touch panel at last, they are also useful to switch users, as they are easy to mount on wheelchairs. The other trend has been towards smaller devices. A fully-fledged PC the size of a video cassette is now available, which will support the current generation of AAC software.
Despite these improvements, there are some areas in which a PC still falls short of the ideal. To a great extent, Windows CE machines take these improvements further forward.Battery Life and power
Four hours is still regarded as exceptional for a PC running at full power, and most portables are likely to run down in half of this time. For a Windows CE device, ten hours of operation is quite normal. Even better, Windows CE devices do not require a boot-up time like a PC. As soon as you hit the power switch, they are ready for use. By switching it on just when you need to talk, you can keep a Windows CE machine running for days on a single charge.Displays
In order to save battery power, early CE machines used a passive display of the type no longer used in full portable PCs. These are especially difficult to read in bright lighting conditions. However, a new type of display (called a transflective display) is now available, and is used on a range of CE devices. This type of display increases in brightness as the ambient light increases and can be read even in full sunlight.Robustness
Being lighter than PCs, CE machines do not hit the floor so hard! Also, the lack of a hard disk drive makes them intrinsically more robust. In fact Windows CE machines have no moving parts at all.Physical characteristics
Windows CE devices are made in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some are tiny palmtops, some look like small laptops, and some are simple tablet-shaped machines. Thus it is possible to find very small devices for ambulant people, larger screens for touch screen users and wheelchair-mountable machines.
A number of people have worked on Windows CE as a platform for AAC software. The authors have produced two systems:A dynamic screen communication system
Winspeak CE allows the CE computer to be used as a dynamic screen system, providing symbol-based communication. Access is via the touch screen or switches. The grids or boards can be generated on a PC, allowing a teacher or therapist to use a PC to create dynamic communication screens for a number of users.A text based communication system
Windbag CE allows a pocket sized computer to be used as a powerful AAC device for users who can type.Text to speech software
All such programs need a text to speech program in the background to do the actual talking. At the time of writing, DECtalk is available in Windows CE format, and others are due to follow shortly.
Although less powerful than PCs, these machines are inexpensive and convenient for AAC use. In particular, for users of conversational level dynamic screen systems, Windows CE offers a dramatic saving in cost with few compromises.
Windows CE is now firmly established as an operating system, and is supported by many manufacturers. We therefore expect to see the development of both hardware and software for this system in the future.
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