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REVIEW: Communicate Easy

For the creators of Communicate Easy, communication based on single images does not necessarily mean a simple app. They have included many options, settings and utilities to create a powerful but very affordable app that deserves to be taken seriously.

Review: AutisMate


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The list of apps for iPad/iPhone/iPod touch includes over 500 of them. Nearly one-fifth are alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) apps, but still there is room for new and really different apps, such as AutisMate.

In short, AutisMate combines AAC functionality with visual scheduling and video modeling. As I always end up putting the apps in a category, I have included AutisMate in the AAC category, but it really goes far beyond being a pure tool of communication and offers many learning functions.

User Mode
iPad settings allow you, from outside AutisMate, decide whether to use the app in edit mode or not. Starting with the no edit mode (ie end user mode), when you start the app you can see a set of six images corresponding to scenes linked to a house (basically the rooms). As I will explain later, the idea is to change those scenes by your own images.

If you touch the bath, you will see its magnified image and two buttons superimposed.

Tapping the green button, which is over the bath, you will hear an audio clip (‘I want to take a bath’).

That is, AutisMate uses a communication paradigm based primarily on selecting specific scenes that had previously been assigned buttons. By touching the buttons you hear audio clips associated with them.

If you touch the yellow star, a window will appear showing two images (pictograms in this case) for two actions than can be done there: brushing your teeth and washing your face. Each of these pictograms could have its own associated audio clip.

But if we want to teach how to do a task, you can associate a video to one of these images. For example, in the case of brushing teeth, you will see a video explaining this daily habit and showing how to do it.

We left the bathroom and return to the main screen. The map icon on the top shows a drop list of locations (each one with its own set of scenes), which initially contains only the home and the school.

If you choose the school and within that the scene about how go to school, you will see another rectangular button. By tapping it you will get access a sequence of pictures or videos that explain, in this case, how to go to the school every day.

Pictograms
AutisMate also allows the user to communicate with pictograms or pictures. To do it, within a particular scene, you will see various image categories on the bottom. Just touch one for us to display the collection of pictograms and/or images contained therein. By touching each of them you can hear the associated audio clip (if you have recorded it).


Thus, to summarize, AutisMate allows you to work with categories of pictures/pictograms as many other AAC apps but is more focused on choosing scenes and tapping buttons associated with specific points in those scenes. Each button can play an audio clip (communication), a video clip (communication/video modeling) or a sequence of images and/or videos (sequences/visual scheduling). A whole mix of options that, properly configured, can provide many potential ways of using AutisMate as a tool for communication and as a learning platform for people with special needs.

Edit Mode
Go back to the settings of the iPad and select the edit mode. This mode lets you create all the content that the user will see later.

First, you can touch the map icon to add new locations by entering their name. Here I think it would be better to be able to assign a picture to each location, but for now you can only enter a text.

If you have also enabled the GPS in the AutisMate settings, you will have the option of marking the GPS position of the location. Then, when you start AutisMate, the closest location to the current GPS position will appear. This option only works when the application is really started, not when you recover it from the background pool of apps. This way seems the most logical, but it limits a bit the feature.

Once within a location, you can add scenes. In a house, they could be rooms, for example, but you can add anything. Each location can have many scenes, but if there are more than six you have to scroll to see all of them them. Each scene can have a name and a photo. Obviously, one would start by modifying the existing locations (home and school) to replace the images by others showing the real user environment.

Within a scene, you can add buttons of various colors, which can be round or star-shaped, as well as visual schedules rectangles and link rectangles.

For buttons, you can assign one or more audio phrases based on writing a text to be reproduced using synthesized speech (only in English) or better by recording an audio clip with the iPad itself. Recording more than one sentence allows you to work aspects of generalization of language, as AutisMate will randomly play one of the possible audio clips whenever the user touches the button.

But we can also assign a video clip or just use the button to change from one scene to another by defining which scene we want to go when tapping the button (and putting it in an area where there is a door, for example). This allows you to potentially build a world of locations each with several scenes and interconnect all of them, and go from house to the street and then to school, etc., in a continuous manner.

Finally, a button can also be associated with a popup that displays one or more images. You can assign to each image its own synthesized/recorded audio clip, video clip or direct link to another scene. This allows, for example, to have a button assigned to the fridge that shows a list of everything that you can say related to the fridge instead of having ten buttons on the fridge.

In the case of visual schedule buttons, to define then a popup appears allowing you to create each step, which may contain a photo/pictogram or a video clip as well as a text and a recorded audio clip. Again, you get maximum flexibility and power, although with some limitations. Both the videos and photos should be already available on the iPad, as AutisMate cannot record them from inside the app.

As expected, you can also edit the categories shown in the bottom of the screen. There are six, but again an horizontal scroll allows you to see much more. For each, one you can add lots of pictures or pictograms and, again, assign audio clips (one or more) to them.

For pictograms, AusitMate displays a list of 12,000 that are already included. You can find them by scrolling through the list, although it makes more sense to look for them using the included text search option.

Tools
As we have seen, the configuration possibilities of AutisMate are enormous, but they imply that defining an entire environment a person can be a long task. To share all this effort, you can export and import complete scenes by email and by exporting them via iTunes.

Finally, AutisMate has an overprinted context-sensitive help on all screens in the edit mode which is more than enough to learn how to use the app. Anyway, AutisMate is in itself quite intuitive and self-guided.

Assessment
As a pure AAC tool based on categories of images, AutisMate is based on choosing pictures or pictograms classified into categories, which fits with a potential group of users who communicate with individual images (not with phrases created by selecting some images). There are thousands of pictograms included, which in itself is already a good value, but they have not associated audio or text.

But if we consider AutisMate as an AAC based on scenes, this app is very flexible and powerful. And if we consider it in its entirety, AutisMate is an app that can be used in many contexts as a platform for communication and for learning habits, social stories, tasks, etc.

Of course, in any case AutisMate is a tool that requires a previous major customization to add images, record audio clips and videos, create categories or assign pictograms to them. With a highly visual menus and options it is an app suitable for people who does not speak English, although the online help, the synthesized voice and the search of pictograms are based on the English language.

AutisMate is a young app that still requires that some details to be polish and have some limitations. But, overall, AutisMate is already a professional tool that provides a lot of innovative features that deserve to be seen.

-Francesc Sistach

AutisMate
AutisMate - SpecialNeedsWare

Company: SpecialNeedsWare LLC.
Languages: English
Functions: Combines an AAC tool based in images (pictograms, pictures, scenes) with visual scheduling and video modeling.
Versions: Only for iPad
Price: $49.99 / €39.99

 


Review: OneVoice – AAC


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Legend, developer of OneVoice – AAC, is a software design and user experience firm that claims their designs are clear and have high quality. In fact, Legend works for other companies making designs for them. After reviewing OneVoice and its website, we have to recognize they are truly good at this.

Besides its interface, OneVoice is an interesting AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) app. It has many common elements with other AAC apps, but it includes some aspects that make it worth taking a look.

In short, OneVoice follows the paradigm of building sentences based on selecting one or typically multiple images. What makes OneVoice different is that the sentence appears in text form only, and that you can also enter text directly. This makes OneVoice a useful AAC app for users that, while appreciate a communication system based on images classified into categories, can also read and even appreciate that the phrase is written in plain text instead of being shown as a sequence of images.

This makes us think about neurotypical people who have lost their speech capability for some reason or, for example, people with special needs who cannot speak but probably can read and write with some fluency.

A unique screen
Once started, OneVoice shows a communication screen that is also the unique full screen included in this app. If you are holding an iPad in landscape mode, you will see on the left the list of categories of vocabulary and, on the right, the images-phrases of the selected category. By default, the “Needs & Wants” category, that includes some basic vocabulary, is checked.

By selecting images from one or more categories you can build a sentence, which will appear in the top box only in text format.

When you finish the sentence, you can touch the ‘Speak’ button, so that OneVoice reads the sentence aloud.  If you prefer, there is an editing option that will allow you to speak each word as selected.

As we have said at the beginning of this review, you can also touch the top box to display the standard keyboard of the iPad and enter text directly. The advantage of this system is that you can even add words in the middle of the sentence you have created based on selecting images. So you can add an adjective or a preposition, for example. You can also copy and paste text from other applications and use the integrated word prediction feature.

The screen has only two more buttons: one to delete the current written sentence, and another to access the settings. The latter will show some small overlapping windows on top of the main screen that, remember, is the only full screen of OneVoice. Here, too, the author looks for simplicity. From the settings you can, for example, select bigger images for the images that accompany each category.

If you use an iPad in portrait mode, the category is selected from a dropdown list, leaving more space for images in each category.

OneVoice also works for the iPhone. The smaller screen means that the app first shows the categories and then the images of the selected category, but the app itself has a very similar operation mode.

Details
In addition to simplicity, there are some hidden strengths that should be noted. OneVoice requires 233 MB, and this is largely because it includes four high quality natural voices (one male adult, one male child, and two female) that allow  an accurate English pronunciation for a much wider vocabulary than the small number of phrases with associated images preloaded suggests.  A demo of each voice (Ryan, Kenny, Laura, Heather) is available at http://www.acapela-group.com/text-to-speech-interactive-demo.html, where the voices are referred to as “American English speech synthesis” voices.

From ‘Settings’ you can choose what voice you want to use and its speed. The same screen allows you to decide whether each word should be pronounced as you add each image or only when you press the ‘Speak’ button.

Vocabulary
OneVoice includes a preloaded vocabulary of only 223 items, a good set for children or youth, covering basic needs. But clearly OneVoice does not have an extensive vocabulary. Any user will have to add dozens of images. For example, there are only 15 images in the food category and 13 for actions.

The high quality and type of illustrations deserve to be highlighted. Where other applications use very schematic pictograms or drawings only suitable for children, OneVoice includes realistic illustrations.

The vocabulary is initially divided into 15 categories. The user can create new categories, but not subcategories. Again, simplicity shows everywhere. The name of each category cannot be too long –more than 20 characters– or will appear truncated. And if an image has been chosen to appear in front of the category name, there will be less room for the full name to appear on the screen.

If you select the Edit mode from ‘Settings’, the single screen of OneVoice will change a bit. Next to each category, two icons appear that allow you to delete categories or move them up and down. You can also delete any image-phrase in that category or relocate it, and also add new categories.

And, of course, you can add new images within a category. A small window appears and shows six tabs with -surprisingly- only a subset of the preloaded phrases. But it is the ‘Custom’ tab that allows you to add your own pictures.

As usual in many apps, pictures can be taken from the library of images of the device. Not so usual, you also have the option to scale the image and take just a piece of it. Using an iPhone or an iPad 2, you may add images based on photographs taken directly using the built-in camera. Apart from the picture, you have to write the text or phrase associated with it.

This way of editing all at once is very powerful, so as a precaution you can decide to use a code to access it. The code is perfectly visible, so the only thing that you will accomplish using it is to avoid entering the edit mode accidentally, and not really to prevent an unauthorized user entering the edit mode. We would have liked the option to actually block access to the edit mode using a secret code.

During our evaluation of OneVoice, we discovered that when adding images, only 24 could reside in the “Custom” images at one time.  The developer acknowledges that this limitation is a bug that affects some users and is working on an update. Until the update is available, once imported images are placed in a desired category, they will likely need to be removed from their temporary location in “Custom” images.   In other words, once the 24-item limit in “Custom” is reached, the option to “Use” additional images is disabled until the number of images in “Custom” is reduced. Thankfully, deleting images out of “Custom” will not affect the images that have already been added to other categories.

Assessment
To assess OneVoice fairly has proven to be difficult for us. On the one hand, we like the design because it is clean and straightforward. No doubt the author has considered every detail of the interface to minimize it but still provide a powerful tool. The voices are very good, and illustrations are equally excellent. You likely will not need to read a user’s manual. Anyway, the company’s website thoroughly explains how to use OneVoice and includes demo videos.

On the other hand, the initial vocabulary is clearly reduced, and that, for an application that costs $200, does not seem right. For that price we expect a vocabulary of many thousands of words. (By the way, the high price is what makes Apple to categorize OneVoice for people over 17 years, but there is really no sexual content or anything that children should not see). Also, for the sake of such simplicity, the configuration is very limited. We can enlarge images of the categories, but not their texts, for example.

OneVoice, as said earlier, has a different approach. The sentence being built appears in text mode. That, for an adult who has lost his speech but not his cognitive abilities, is probably great. From one point of view, you should compare OneVoice to TTS (text-to-speech) apps, such as Verbally Premium ($100), but with the advantage of being able of quickly build sentences based on selecting images.

For users with autism or other intellectual special needs, the assessment will depend on their written language skills. Without written language skills, OneVoice becomes meaningless, because the user cannot recognize the sentence that is built on the screen. With written language skills, an advantage of OneVoice will undoubtedly be its simple but yet powerful design.

In any case, there is a free lite version of OneVoice with the same features except that it does not generate voice output. So you can test it and check if it satisfies your needs.

-Angie Lamb & Francesc Sistach

OneVoice
Enlaces: iTunes
Company: Legend
Languages: English
Functions: AAC based on images to generate sentences in text format and with 4 natural voices.
Versions: Only for iPad; Lite (free) version.
Price: $199,99€ / €149,99$