Designing a small speech-generating device durable enough for children to use called for a small form factor module based on the Intel Atom processor running Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Operating System (OS).
DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, a leading provider of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) products and services, offers complete solutions for individuals with speech, language, and learning challenges. DynaVox is dedicated to helping individuals and families who need alternatives to gain or regain the power of speech. The company is committed to helping individuals challenged by significant speech disabilities make meaningful connections with the world and with those who care for them.
DynaVox speech-generating devices help those living with conditions such as stroke, autism, ALS, brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, or aphasia. The DynaVox Xpress, a battery-powered handheld device (Figure 1), lets those with speech challenges take DynaVox technology with them into the broader society. Powerful communication functionality, small size, and sleek design make mainstreaming possible.
DynaVox’s core technology, refined in dozens of products used by tens of thousands of people worldwide, is based on a clear understanding of an individual user’s needs. People can find speech challenging for various reasons, and people of different ages have different requirements.
For example, an adult with autism might have only the most basic understanding of communication, while an adult with ALS might have the cognitive ability to be highly verbal and communicative but lack the muscle control to move lips and vocal cords to form words. An adult with aphasia resulting from a stroke or brain injury might be able to speak words, but not in the appropriate sequence or context for the communication to be functional.
Whatever the speech problem, different ages require different vocabulary. The communication needs of an adult with Down Syndrome and a child with Down Syndrome can be quite dissimilar.
DynaVox approaches this problem by offering an extensive set of content in its devices organized in a matrix called the InterAACT Framework. One axis differentiates communication ability into emergent, context dependent, and independent communicator categories. The other axis is typified by the individual’s age-appropriate vocabulary and needs. The InterAACT Framework spans more than 30,000 communication pages, each of which link some form of visual input (such as an icon or text) to some form of speech output. Also, additional logic allows words and images to be assembled into complete sentences and thoughts.
Identifying improvements needed
After refining its core technology for many years, DynaVox faced the challenge of making it more accessible to more people through smaller size and enhanced ergonomics. Shrinking the device to pocket or purse size required more than a mechanical effort.
In addition, DynaVox decided to integrate the latest projected capacitive touch screen technology, which is lighter, thinner, and more scratch resistant than the resistive touch screens used in other communication devices. This technology never needs calibration and responds to an extremely light touch, enabling a gestural interface. DynaVox also wanted to ruggedize the device since a user might drop it. Therefore, the device needed to operate using flash storage instead of a hard disk.
DynaVox planned to incorporate more media technology like MP3 playback and video, which could be used for training as well as entertainment. To assist in mainstreaming, DynaVox identified a wide range of spoken voice options to let users pick their personality and work in many languages. The DynaVox Xpress needed to be Internet-enabled so that the augmented communicator could quickly access new vocabulary and symbols and facilitate maintenance and updates over the Internet.
Technology to meet the challenge
To accomplish these goals, DynaVox needed to create new hardware and software platforms to take advantage of technology advancements. The first decision was to choose an OS.
After considering Linux and other OSs, DynaVox eventually chose Microsoft Windows Embedded Standard 2009, which offers many advantages including access to a wide selection of high-quality text-to-speech voices in many languages. It provides a familiar, robust development environment and offers the scalability necessary to customize the OS size to meet the goal of using smaller, flash-based storage instead of a hard disk.
Early in the Xpress design cycle, DynaVox selected the Intel Atom processor, even before production silicon was available. This decision was made because of the revolutionary claims about the processor’s combination of low power operation and good performance, plus support for Windows Embedded Standard 2009. DynaVox had previously met specifications using Intel processors with its V family of products.
While DynaVox could have integrated Intel Atom technology at the chip level, a cost analysis made it evident that it was better to use a packaged Computer-On-Module (COM) such as the Eurotech Catalyst Module (Figure 2) based on the Atom processor and focus the company’s design efforts on its device-specific carrier board and basic application/software technology. This modular approach offered DynaVox an easier path to upgrade its products as technology evolves by incorporating the next-generation computer on the module rather than redesigning the boards.
In addition to offering an Intel Atom-based hardware platform, Eurotech worked with DynaVox to customize the BIOS and other supporting software, an important concern for a smaller company like DynaVox.
DynaVox introduced the Xpress to the market in August 2009. The device has a simple user interface that lets users select words, ideas, and full sentences so they can easily interact with others. It is small, portable, easy to use, and discreet, so it can be used in virtually any environment.
The new system is well received by users and is funded by Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. DynaVox has a network of more than 110 sales consultants to help medical professionals, individual users, and families with children select and support a communication device.
Many things have changed at DynaVox since it was founded in 1983, but one thing that remains constant is the company’s commitment to bring the gift of communication to people with speech challenges across the globe.
Hilary Tomasson is VP of marketing for Eurotech, based in Columbia, Maryland, where she leads product management and marketing communications initiatives. She formerly led BroadSoft’s corporate marketing activities as the company grew to be one of Deloitte’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in North America in 2006. Hilary also held leadership positions at Spirent Communications in the areas of marketing, communications, product marketing, and sales operations. She has a BS from Clarkson University and an MS from the University of Maryland.
Eurotech 301-490-4007 www.eurotech-inc.com