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Dynamic touch screens help the speech-impaired

DynaVox and others are moving beyond Windows-based programs to mimic the touch screens and interactivity of smartphones.

Eight out of every 1,000 people have a lot of trouble communicating vocally, be it from a traumatic event such as a stroke or the onset of diseases such as Lou Gehrig's (ALS). As recently as the 1960s, it was a big deal for those who were effectively mute to be able to type out their thoughts one key stroke at a time. (Stephen Hawking first used a DECtalk DTC01 voice synthesizer developed by Digital Equipment in the early 1980s.)

DynaVox Xpress begins shipping at the end of August. DynaVox

Welcome to the next generation. In a great feature article in Scientific American, Larry Greenemeier weighs in on the latest gadget trend for the speech-impaired. The star of the show is Xpress by DynaVox.

Xpress, which begins shipping at the end of August at $7,500 a pop (funding is available through Medicare, Medicaid, and some private health insurance providers), is a dozen centimeters wide and less than 2 pounds, rendering communication by hand a potentially enjoyable experience. With Wi-Fi for Web access, Bluetooth, infrared remote control, and multimedia tools such as MP3 and video players, people are now able to share their personalities more easily.

My favorite part of the article, though, highlights how innovative not just the devices, but also their users, can be. Justin Birch, who lost his ability to speak in 2003, after suffering a brain aneurysm, initiates the phrase, "Please be patient with me while I am composing what I want to say," as he preps his dialogue in situations that call for more than an automated reply.

A Texas hold 'em player, Birch can tap out common poker phrases--calling, raising, folding--very quickly, and he blurts out sounds like Homer Simpson's "Woo hoo!" when appropriate. Emoticons through recognizable sound clip? Brilliant.

Now, if only there were a way to reconstruct the voice he used to have. Of course, the synthetic version he relies on probably saved his hide that time he defeated a poker player and accidentally hit the wrong button to spit out, "Good game, you bitch," as she surrendered her spot at the table.