The TalkActiv’ app for tablets uses pictograms, pre-recorded sentences and a customised keyboard to enable people who have lost their voice to communicate with those around them.
Every year in France aphasia strikes a further 15,000 people. This condition, sometimes called mutism, which deprives people of their ability to speak, can come about through a number of different pathologies, ranging from physical problems with the vocal apparatus to conditions of the nervous system. In every case however aphasia sufferers experience real difficulties trying to communicate with their families, people in shops and even doctors on a daily basis.
While the new information and communication technologies cannot actually treat this condition or its physical/medical causes, they can be harnessed to alleviate the practical consequences of aphasia, for instance through speech-generating devices such as the system used by physicist Stephen Hawking. Such devices are however hard to manipulate without training and lots of practice.
Now a team of students led by Mari Doucet, from the European Institute of Technology (Epitech), a computer science higher education institute, decided to address this topic as part of their end-of-studies project (EIP: Epitech Innovative Projects). They have developed their own speech-generation app – TalkActiv’ – for tablets, paying great attention to the need to ensure ease of use for patients. Mari Doucet points out that existing solutions do not take into account all types of handicaps. For instance, as the condition may well be the result of a haemorrhagic or ischemic stroke, it is not unusual for aphasia sufferers also to be affected by motor, visual and hearing problems.
The Epitech app offers a set of basic intuitive functions, starting with buttons for ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘I don’t know’.
In addition, Mari Doucet and her team have created a set of pictograms representing subject/verb/complement so as to enable the user to put together a sentence.
The app also comes with a traditional-type keyboard on which to type sentences, plus a function providing sentences which a doctor has pre-recorded for the patient. Additional functionality includes a visual representation of the human body on which the patient can show where s/he is feeling pain and a click-on scale to indicate the degree of pain.
TalkActiv’, which won first prize at this year’s EIP Awards, is already being used by a dozen patients at the St Hélier Medical and Rehabilitation Centre at Rennes, in northwestern France. Going forward, Mari Doucet and the team are planning to add functionality in the reverse direction, i.e. providing vocal recognition as a means of capturing words and conveying them through visual images. This could help people suffering from short-term memory loss, such as Alzheimer's patients.