“Once we identified the need for a better keyboard, our goal was to create the most accessible, most flexible talking keyboard available.”
— Alex Levy, co-creator of RocketKeys
RocketKeys is an app that turns your iPad into a customizable talking keyboard that is easy for people with physical challenges to use. Designed to improve accessibility for users with special needs, this text-to-speech app allows users to design their ideal keyboard by choosing the key size, layout, and colors they prefer. Users can also customize the word prediction functionality of the app and personalize the voices it uses to speak out loud.
Before they developed RocketKeys, Aakash Sahney and Alex Levy of MyVoice developed TalkRocket Go, a GPS-driven AAC app previously called MyVoice.
“TalkRocket Go serves the quick and routine communication needs of many of our users, but we know that many people want to communicate ‘off the cuff,’ if you will. And yet, users who have poor motor skills or poor eyesight are limited by keyboards that just don’t work for them,” says Levy.
He explains: In existing keyboards, the keys were too small. In physical keyboards, the keys were hard to press. In software keyboards, the screen were too sensitive and shaking hands result in too many letters being pressed.
“Once we identified the need for a better keyboard, our goal was to create the most accessible, most flexible talking keyboard available,” he says.
Why Did You Create RocketKeys?
Alex Levy: Aakash and I were researchers at the University of Toronto; we started researching communication aids in a project sponsored by the Canadian government and Google. During our research we learned that there are an estimated 3 million to 8 million people in North America with communication challenges. Within this population, the rate of unemployment is high and people are socially isolated.
Although there is great need for communication aids, a relatively small portion of the community uses aids. We believe that three factors limit use of these aids: many existing aids are cost-prohibitive; few are accessible to users with physical challenges; and most are not intuitive or efficient to use.
Early in our research, we were challenged to make sure our work helps hundreds of thousands of people. That wasn’t going to happen one research project at a time. And so, we started our own company.
RocketKeys is a great complement to our existing product line. Our first app, TalkRocket Go is for users on the go. It contains vocabularies organized by theme and it works for a range of users — from a toddler answering yes/no questions to an adult with 6,000 vocabulary words in hundreds of organized categories.
But users that want to have a deeper conversation need a keyboard and we recognized our customers’ frustrations with the available keyboard-based communication apps.
We wanted to create an app that makes communication easy for those who struggle to both type and talk.
We have created a very robust prediction engine to limit the amount of effort to type a sentence and we have created a completely customizable keyboard.
How Does RocketKeys Work?
Alex Levy: The prediction engine was critical for the usability of RocketKeys. We were not satisfied with existing prediction engines — they just weren’t predicting the things we wanted to talk about and that would slow down communication.
We wanted to talk about Saturday Night Live and Obama and musicians and baseball. But the existing prediction engines made formal suggestions — no proper nouns and no slang. We wanted an engine that would suggest words and phrases that we use every day.
So we started with a source that has data in line with real conversations: Twitter. We analyzed 10 million tweets and created a prediction engine that knows “What’s up?” instead of pushing users to use the more formal “How are you?” And if you start typing “Christina,” our engine will suggest “Christina Applegate,” “Christina Aguilera,” and “Christina Ricci.”
Because prediction can be overwhelming for some users, we give the option to choose the number of words or phrases predicted — from one to seven suggestions.
The keyboard is also key to the functionality of the app. Users can add word keys for the words they use most often, they can change the size, color, and layout of keys.
The app offers a number of color schemes to improve visible accessibility. People with poor vision, can choose dark or bright color with high contrast.
Even users who are blind can use the app by having the iPad read the keys out loud as they “feel” around the screen. RocketKeys’ screen-reading features goes beyond the built-in accessibility features of the iPad by allowing users to customize the voices they use for each task. For example, a user could choose to use a faster or quieter voice for screen reading, and another louder or slower voice to communicate their spoken messages to others.
For users with physical accessibility issues, challenges range from unsteady or imprecise hands to the inability to point. It is very difficult to type with your fist or with or with a hand that trembles.
To accommodate these users, we’ve added a stabilization feature to the app. Basically, the app can analyze a few seconds of movement and determines the center of movement to recognize what the user is trying to touch.
The app also displays a cursor to give visual feedback so that users can understand how the app is reading movements.
Users can choose whether to use single, double or triple tap to select keys. This prevents accidental tapping.
For users that have trouble lifting their hands to hover over keys, you can customize the keyboard so that you can slide your hand from letter to letter, holding on the letter of choice from one to 10 seconds to select the letter.
And finally, the voice of the app is customizable. Users can choose from four voices and then customize the volume, speed and pitch. This is important to help users maintain their unique identities and to truly express themselves.
Editor’s Note: At this time, Talk Rocket Go is available in English and French. RocketKeys is available in English, with a French version coming in the future. Sahney and Levy plan to roll out Spanish and German versions of both apps in the future.
Additionally, Levy notes that the top user request for RocketKeys since it was launched in March is to have the keyboard integrate with other programs so that users can use the keyboard to type emails, to type in web browsers, to send updates to Facebook or to type in Microsoft Word. The company is looking to include this type of functionality with future updates
To find more apps to help your child with autism, download Wynsum Arts’ free app, i.AM Search — available on iTunes.