Device helps limited-mobility children to use touchscreens

Researchers at Georgia Tech are trying to open the world of tablets to children whose limited mobility makes it difficult for them to perform the common pinch and swipe gestures required to control the devices.

Ayanna Howard, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and graduate student Hae Won Park have created Access4Kids, a wireless input device that uses a sensor system to translate physical movements into fine-motor gestures to control a tablet.

The device, coupled with supporting open-source apps and software developed at Georgia Tech, is said to allow children with fine-motor impairments to access off-the-shelf apps such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as custom-made apps for therapy and science education.

According to a statement, the current prototype of the Access4Kids device includes three force-sensitive resistors that measure pressure and convert it into a signal that instructs the tablet. A child can wear the device around the forearm or place it on the arm of a wheelchair and hit the sensors or swipe across the sensors with his or her fist. The combination of sensor hits or swipes gets converted to different touch-based commands on the tablet.

Children with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy typically suffer from fine-motor impairments, which is the difficulty of controlling small co-ordinated movements of the hands, wrists and fingers. They tend to lack the ability to touch a specific small region with appropriate intensity and timing needed for press and swipe gestures.

The impact of Access4Kids could be significant. More than 200,000 children in the US public school system have an orthopaedic disability and have been excluded from the use of tablet and touchscreen devices. Current assistive technology, such as augmentative and alternative communication devices, is available to those with motor impairments for traditional computer platforms but not tablets or smartphones.

‘We can’t keep it in the lab,’ Howard said. ‘It doesn’t make sense for me to have one child, one at a time, look at it and say “hey that’s really cool” and not have it out there in the world. The real goal is to make it safe and efficient so someone can make it into a commercial product.’

Howard is creating a second prototype that will hopefully be more flexible. It will include wireless sensors that can be placed anywhere a child is capable of hitting them, such as with a foot or the side of the head. User trials for the second prototype will begin soon. Howard said she hopes to have the device through clinical trials starting next year. Howard is also working on a version of the device called TabAccess for adults with motor disabilities.

So far, Access4Kids has received positive feedback from typically developing children and children with disabilities, as well as their carers.