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COMPORTA: new technologies in the service of the disabled

In the COMPORTA project, work is being carried out with these people severely disabled in the upper limbs. The aim of the project is to adapt a portable communicator that will have various applications for these persons.

In many cases persons with limited mobility in their upper limbs; those with muscular dystrophy, those suffering from certain nervous and muscular disorders such as cerebral palsy, lose the ability of moving their wrists and arms and, thereby, may have difficulties handling certain devices, such as a computer mouse or keyboard or a TV remote control pad. In the COMPORTA project, work is being carried out with these people severely disabled in the upper limbs. The aim of the project is to adapt a portable communicator that will have various applications for these persons. Xmadina Tecnología Adaptativa, S.L.; Eleka Ingeniaritza linguistikoa, S.L.; Robotiker; Minos 97 and the Bidaideak association have all participated in this project. COMPORTA is based on the use of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant), also known as electronic agendas. Given their small size and weight, they are totally portable and are easy to use anywhere. This is why PDAs are so useful for persons with neurophysical disabilities, and can help with greater personal autonomy; in effect, they enhance one´s quality of life. This is because they can be used to communicate anywhere, listen to music of one´s choice, search the Web or control the television set. Nevertheless, those with disabilities in the arms and hands may have problems in handling the buttons and tactile screens of the usual PDAs. In order to provide a solution to this, an adaptation has been made of Etsedi, a PC application created for the Xmadina company. Etsedi created a virtual keyboard on the PC screen, reducing the complete virtual keyboard of the commercially available variety to just eight keys. Taking into account that many people with limited mobility are capable of handling the control pad for a wheelchair with great precision and skill, the distribution of the 8 keys has been designed so that they can be selected by means of movements similar to those of these control pads. That is to say, the virtual keys are selected with movements carried out in one plane, in different directions. The Etsedi application edits texts in Windows. Having a choice of various menus, the user may write numbers, text or special characters. Each virtual key has a set of characters that have been grouped together on the basis of an analysis of combination frequencies, while taking into account that these combinations never occur and, thus, introducing the text is facilitated and optimised. Besides, the application predicts the words that the user wishes to write. As the user keys in a word, the programme automatically comes up with up to 16 possible words around the 8 virtual keys, in such a way that a simple movement can directly select the desired word. The dictionary used by the application for this prediction can be updated and adapted by the user to his or her needs. The COMPORTA project has adapted this application to PDAs and has developed the same system of prediction for the Basque language. Further, they wish to extend the functions so the device can be used for electronic mail, surfing the Net, and so on. People disabled in the upper limbs often have problems in speaking. This is why COMPORTA, by means of a virtual keyboard, adds a voice to the written text. Using voice synthesisers and , the text keyed in by the end-user is heard through the speakers This part of the project has been the task of Eleka Ingeniaritza Linguistikoa and, although applications of this technology exist in other languages, this is the first time in Euskara. Thus, it will be a bilingual PDA, voice synthesising in both Basque and Spanish, enabling the end-user to use either language. Moreover, different tones of voice are available, the user being able to employ the tone of their choice and which best befits their personality, sex, age, etc. The PDA can also be useful for controlling various everyday devices. This is why, at COMPORTA, they want the PDA also to be a remote control one for various utilities controlled through the PC. This means the PC would have the software necessary to control the TV, the music centre, the DVD, etc., and the PDA would send the corresponding commands to the PC to control this software. So that the PDA is genuinely portable, a support will be designed which will be an articulated arm adaptable to different models of wheelchair and which can also be used to support other items. The device will have small speakers incorporated which will have sufficient power and quality to be used in noisy environments, such as the street. Current PDAs have inbuilt speakers but they are not very powerful; the new, reinforced system will guarantee quality in communication. There currently exist a number of devices for the disabled on the market. However, unfortunately many disabled persons are denied access to these because, according to the INE (Instituto Nacional de Estadística) their price is prohibitive. This is why COMPORTA have focused on the final product being accessible for this target group of people. The solution adopted was the use of commercial hardware with adapted software. In most cases, the hardware is specialised. In this case, however, it is one that is manufactured in great numbers, thus reducing the price considerably. Moreover, in choosing a PDA amongst mobile communicators, the economic factor was also taken into consideration, as these are also cheaper than other communicators.