Wearable AAC devices are set to transform communication support
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices play a critical role in empowering individuals with language impairments to communicate effectively.
However, traditional AAC devices have faced challenges in adoption and are frequently abandoned due to their visibility and stigma. To combat this, a research team at King’s College London, led by Humphrey Curtis, a PhD student in the Department of Informatics, has developed innovative wearable AAC prototypes through a co-design process which focusses on groups of individuals with complex communication needs (CCNs).
Electronic Specifier’s Sheryl Miles recently caught up with Curtis to discuss his insights and inspiration behind his work, the technology driving these devices, the challenges and benefits they offer, and the transformative potential of his research.
Supportive AAC devices
Curtis's expertise in human-centred computing – exploring the interface between humans and computers – developed via a journey that took him from PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) through to computer science, and has eventually culminated in his role as a lead researcher at King's College London.
“I have quite an interdisciplinary background which is common within my field. But within computer science, I’ve always been drawn to the more human focused side. And within that space, wearables that easily integrate into users lives.”
AAC devices offer vital support to those with speech or language impairments, enabling them to communicate thoughts, desires, feelings, and ideas effectively. However, traditional AAC devices have encountered low adoption rates and frequent abandonment due to their visibility and social stigma. So, empowering users of AAC devices is the cornerstone of Curtis's research.
These devices serve as tools for individuals with complex communication needs, such as those living with aphasia – which is where Curtis centres his research.
In his paper ‘Envisioning the (In)Visibility of Discreet and Wearable AAC Devices,’ Curtis received recognition at one of the leading human-computer interaction conferences. This recognition signifies the potential impact of the study's findings on the AAC field and its implications for the future of communication support technologies.
Discreet AAC devices
While there are high-tech devices, like the one famously used by Stephen Hawking, there is a whole spectrum of wide-ranging AAC solutions, from low-tech options like communication books through to more high-tech, custom-built devices.
Visible AAC devices were found to be beneficial in setting clear expectations during conversations and increasing awareness about the users' underlying disabilities. This aspect of the research emphasised the importance of empowering people with CCNs in the right way in their communication interactions.
Curtis's research focuses on wearable technologies that are designed to aid communication for older adults living with aphasia, particularly if they have moments of communication breakdown due to fatigue or external pressures.
Highlighting the importance of getting the balance between discretion and visibility right in creating these devices, Curtis's team has developed prototypes, including a smartwatch app, and a speech-to-text badge, which aim to balance that intersection between visibility and support.
“You have people wanting the technology to be discrete, but they also want it to be prominent, so other people will help and support them … It’s a difficult balance because people want technologies that are stylish and embrace their personality, they don't want a prominent device that draws attention in public. But then, using that prominent device can be helpful because people will provide support.”
Co-designing AAC devices
Through collaborative sessions with aphasia charity, Aphasia Re-Connect – who give people living with aphasia the opportunity to connect and engage with other people living with aphasia – participants share their real-world challenges, leading to the conceptualisation of novel technologies that cater to specific communication needs. The design philosophy incorporates their feedback at every stage, ensuring usability, accessibility, and effectiveness.
“We approached people and said, ‘if we could build you anything, what would you like?’ And people [with aphasia] came up with all these ideas for apps that come directly from their experiences and beliefs and what they think will work for them.”
Efficacy testing and app deployment
The research highlighted the significance of enabling people with CCNs to control the visibility of their AAC devices, depending on the context and setting. By implementing a design philosophy that prioritises discretion and invisibility, the researchers aimed to reduce social stigma and abandonment of these devices.
Curtis's research focuses on assessing the efficacy of wearable AAC devices through simulated scenarios and real-world testing with initial studies showing promising results, in terms of usability and effectiveness.
The team's plan involves making the smartwatch apps available on app stores by the end of 2023, so they can ensure accessibility for a broader user base.
The apps are also completely customisable to the user, which means they can tailor their communication support needs, fostering a sense of empowerment and confidence.
It is this vision of the wearable devices harbouring a more inclusive society, where communication barriers are minimised, that drives Curtis to explore just how transformative the potential of these devices are – not only in their technological innovation, but also in their potential to reshape societal attitudes toward communication impairments.
“In the long term, the hope is to get a large enough user base. Hopefully we receive feedback from people about the apps we’ve built, and how they’ve helped them to participate in education or in general civic life. Or maybe the apps helped with the trauma of losing their voice from a stroke. Because losing that can be very traumatic for everyone, and families and friendships can suffer.”
The future of discreet tech
Looking ahead, the researchers envision a future where discreet and wearable technologies become more unobtrusive, immersive, and intelligent. These ‘smart’ AAC devices have the potential to change the way people with a disability communicate, including those with CCNs.
In the quest to bridge the communication gap for those with language impairments, Humphrey Curtis and his team are crafting a future where wearable AAC devices seamlessly integrate into individuals' lives, providing essential support while championing inclusivity and understanding.
Through co-design, innovation, and a deep understanding of user needs, their work stands as a beacon of hope for a more accessible and compassionate world.