Thoughts on AAC Technology
AAC or augmentative and alternative communication includes any method of communication used in addition to or in replacement of speech and writing to fulfill an individual’s communication needs. AAC systems involve traditional as well as alternative representations of written and spoken language including manual signals and gestures, words and letters, pictures, simple drawings, photographs, animations, and video (Mirenda, 2003, p. 204). The evolution of technology has greatly changed the capability of AAC users to effectively communicate with their peers. For example, a user who once relied on a binder full of PECS (picture communication symbols) used to piece together their thoughts and share them with others can now perform the same work with greater ease and increased enjoyment via dynamic high tech AAC devices such as the Dynavox Maestro.
The Dynavox Maestro is a relatively new addition to the world of AAC high tech devices and while it has not introduced any new or revolutionary features, it incorporates most all of the features which a large portion of AAC users rely on within a highly functional hardware and software package. Its hardware is comparable to current netbooks and tablets and its design is thinner and lighter than previous models, which are considered by some to be simply too bulky and heavy for comfort. The Maestro is for the most part a dedicated AAC device, designed for AAC usage, but can also be used as a standard PC as it runs the standard Windows XP operating system. It supports a wide base of users having different physical and interaction abilities. Users may interact with the device via its touch screen, visual and auditory scanning, joystick, audio touch, mouse pause, morse code, and switch joystick. The device is set apart from other devices by its proprietary Series 5 AAC software and its hardware features which support various AAC users.
The high tech AAC marketplace was once occupied by few, specialized companies. However, now that technology such as touch screen capable devices are more common, other competitors such as Apple have entered into the AAC marketplace. Apple’s iPad 2 is becoming a well known device within the educational marketplace due to its sleek design, ease of use, portability, and wealth of education related applications. Unlike the Dynavox Maestro, the iPad is designed to be used as a multifaceted device. While the Maestro is capable of functioning in a similar capacity, it is geared towards being used as a dedicated AAC device (and automatically loads AAC software when started). The iPad boots into an iOS environment which facilitates the launching, switching between, and closing of various applications. To function as an AAC device, third party software such as Proloquo2go is required. This software supports touch-based communication via letter, word, and proprietary picture symbols. The distinguishing advantage to going the iPad route vs. the specialized device route is price. A user can accomplish much of the same work at a small fraction of the price.
As technology becomes more and more prevalent within our lives, no matter our needs and uses, the importance of usability and enjoyability become clearer and clearer. In order for a device to become an integral component within our life, it must function in accordance with our needs, do so in a way which is both effective and pleasant, and integrate with our sense of self or identity, which includes things such as aesthetics. That AAC users rely on their devices much more so than typical computer users, to a point that it may actually be considered to be an extension of them self or a part of their identity (Higginbotham, 2010). If this is true, then it is reasonable to assume that aesthetics may be as important to the functioning of the device within the user’s life as the features and functions involved in communication.
This reality offers us a clearer doorway into the future of AAC technology. In order to pursue solutions which are more effective, companies need to focus not only on what the device can do but how it can do it. Over time, we will likely begin to see an increase in popularity of devices such as the iPad within portions of specialized markets such as AAC. We will also likely see an increase in the specialization of devices within more specialized portions of the AAC market. The intricate balance of design and function will continue to drive innovation within these and other markets and will not cease to evolve due to the constant changing nature of technology.
Mirenda, P. (2003). Toward Functional Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Students With Autism: Manual Signs, Graphic Symbols, and Voice Output Communication Aids.. Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools, 34(3), 203-216.
Higginbotham, J. (2010). Book Review: Design Meets Disability. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 26(4), 226-229.