If You Can’t Touch, How Can You Use a Touchscreen?

While Don has no use of his hands due to a spinal cord injury, he can use a computer completely independently using a device called the Jouse, a mouth operated joystick that allows mouse cursor control, and clicking through sips and puffs. Through the use of technology, Don has become a professional accountant, owns a property management company, and is currently completing the practical experience requirements for a Professional Appraiser designation.

When Don wants to use his smartphone, however, he has no way of using it by himself. Don needs someone else’s hands to operate his device for him.

Despite all the advances in mobile touchscreen device technology, there is no portable solution for someone who wants to use the device, yet can’t use their hands.

An estimated 1,000,000 people in Canada and the United States have limited or no use of their arms—meaning they’re unable to use touchscreen devices that could provide access to helpful apps and services, and remove other access barriers. While solutions exist for desktop computers, they can cost up to $3,000 and do not work well on mobile devices.

A Prototype Solution

The LipSync deviceA portable mouth controlled input solution that can be mounted to a wheelchair has been developed by a Canadian nonprofit organization, the Neil Squire Society. Called the LipSync, it enables people with little or no hand movement to operate a touchscreen device. The LipSync is a mouth-operated joystick that allows a person to control a computer cursor with a minimum of head and neck movement. The electronics are housed in the ‘head’ of the device so there are no additional control boxes, making the LipSync a good candidate for portable, wheelchair-mounted applications. The mouthpiece is attached to a precision miniature joystick sensor that requires only a very slight pressure on the shaft in order to move a cursor up and down. The mouthpiece is hollow and allows a person to perform “taps and holds” by alternatively puffing or sipping into the tube.

Scaling the Solution

On April 12, 2016, the Neil Squire Society was awarded an $800,000 USD grant through the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities to take the current LipSync prototype and release it as an open source, affordable solution, which will allow anyone with difficulty using their hands to operate a mobile device.

Through their support, the Society is updating the LipSync to include a Bluetooth connection module and simplifying its design. The goal is to make the product simple enough that it can be produced using 3D printers and other maker tools, resulting in an access device that can be made for a few hundred dollars instead of thousands. The initiative builds on some of the concepts of the sharing economy in that it takes advantage of untapped resources of people with technical skills interested in volunteering. It pairs volunteers with the excess capacity of the maker spaces, allowing them to be creative in their implementations and informed by the unique needs to fit the device to various wheelchairs, beds, or other environments.

The updated design will be released by the end of Summer 2016. For those interested in receiving a LipSync, making a LipSync, or staying up to date on the project, you can visit the Neil Squire Society’s website.

Chad Leaman
Chad Leaman is the Director of Development for the Neil Squire Society. The Neil Squire Society offers technology, computer literacy and employment programming for people with physical disabilities. During his thirteen years at the Neil Squire Society, he has developed numerous programs that are available across Canada. Chad is also a volunteer organizer of NetSquared Vancouver (NTEN 501 club Vancouver), which holds free workshops and an annual conference for non-profits to better use technology to further their mission statement. He also serves as Vice-Chair for BC Technology for Learning Society, which refurbishes over 7,000 computers a year for schools, non-profits and other at-need populations in BC. He’s a father of young twins which is the source of much joy, sleeplessness and scraped knees.