No-Touch Typing for Disabled

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
December 2002

In Brazil, physically disabled individuals may no longer need to buy expensive software to operate computers and surf the Web, thanks to a free application developed by programmers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

By downloading a program called Motrix, disabled people can read, write and interact with their computers using an embedded voice-recognition system. Motrix allows the user to perform nearly all computerized tasks, including playing games, and Motrix may be integrated with home automation services.

It was created especially for quadriplegics, who number about 200,000 in Brazil, according to the most recent census.

Since quadriplegics cannot operate a computer without assistance, voice-recognition alternatives make life a bit easier, but they are usually quite expensive.

“Motrix changes this situation because it’s free and doesn’t have to be imported from another country,” José Antônio dos Santos Borges, Motrix’s main programmer, said.

The system was developed by the Electronic Computation Nucleus, or NCE, a group of technicians and engineers who have been creating adaptable software at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro since 1994.

Motrix is a revised version of Dosvox, which is known worldwide as one of the best adaptable software programs for the visually impaired.

Launched in 1993, Dosvox uses a low-cost voice synthesizer that evolved from a text editor created by Marcelo Pimentel Pinheiro, a blind computer science student.

The idea to create software specifically geared toward the physically handicapped came from Lenira Luna, a radiologist who has been a quadriplegic for 26 years.

Luna wanted to find a way to read at night while lying down. After a day of working in her wheelchair, spending more time sitting up was too painful. She tried studying while lying down in bed, but found it was difficult to control her muscles. Using software called Friendly Keyboard did not alleviate the pain.

Researchers at NCE began looking into the issue. They discovered that most voice-enabled devices did not operate in Portuguese, were not commercially available in Brazil, or were too expensive for the general public.

NCE analyzed other options, such as IBM’s ViaVoice 9.0, but gave up after calculating the costs. The professional version of that program sells for around $200 in the United States.

They eventually adapted a free voice-recognition system created by Microsoft for the project.

The minimum system requirement for using Motrix is a 133-MHz processor. The software runs only on the Windows operating system.

“We still can’t offer a Linux version, because our knowledge with that operating system is not very good,” said Borges. “Also, the cost of investing in Linux distribution of Motrix is quite high, and we can’t afford that yet.”

Motrix launches automatically and gains control of the mouse and keyboard after the computer is turned on. Commands control five main types of operations: use of the keyboard mouse, typing, launching applications, running adaptable scripts and menu selections.

The user can also “type” while using the software by dictating letter by letter. In order to distinguish the sound of each letter, developers chose the International Phonetic Alphabet (“Alpha,” “Tango,” “Bravo,” etc.), which is recognized as a good alternative for noisy environments.

The application of this technology may soon extend beyond computers. NCE is already testing Motrix with home devices for turning on lights, TVs and air conditioners.

“Motrix may be a life-transformation tool for thousands of quadriplegic people in Brazil,” Borges said. “Just as happened with Dosvox, we believe it will make a difference.”