Assistive Technology at Both Ends of the Price Spectrum

Those of you who know me know that not only have I built a variety of gadgets both mechanical and electronic to help me deal with my disability, but that I also many years ago helped a friend of mine named Christopher Lee who had very severe cerebral palsy get access to a computer using software I wrote. With new inexpensive controllers like the Arduino and the new Raspberry Pi credit card size computer running Linux, the opportunities for making adaptive equipment for the disabled are going to go through a new resurgence not seen since the days in the late 70s early 80s when the only way to have a personal computer was to buy a bag of parts and fire them together yourself.

But an interesting phenomena is occurring. There seems to be a great disparity in the cost of these devices. On one hand we have the open source DIY maker community designing gadgets and giving away schematics and software for free. On the other hand we have people commercializing these projects and building businesses around them.

I’m all for people getting paid for their inventions even if the invention is designed with  altruistic motives such as helping the disabled, teaching underprivileged children,  or leveraging technology in undeveloped countries. I appreciate that some of these devices are in such small demand that the overhead to produce and sell them is great because they are built by hand and sold in small quantities. On the other hand some amazing work is being done in the DIY maker community that shares its designs and software for free and allows people to adapt it and further innovate it to meet their needs. It tends to make one wonder if the standard business model is really the best way to get products in the hands of people who need them.

Here are couple of examples… In previous installments of this blog I showed you how I showed off my IR remote control for my TV that was built with an Arduino microcontroller. My venue was Adafruit Industries weekly Show-and-Tell video chat via Google+ hangouts. This week’s hangout included a demonstration from a guy named Dino Tinitigan who had showed off some of his robotic projects in the past. But this time he showed a power wheelchair that can be controlled by tilting your head while wearing a helmet. Although he’s invested a lot of his own design work into it, it pretty much is built from off-the-shelf products the kind of which one could buy at Adafruit or other maker supply houses. He’s demonstrating that anyone with a little bit of maker ability and some time to spare can create incredibly useful technology. I don’t know if he is really creating this stuff as open-source hardware and software or if he intends to commercialize it but in either event he’s creating something and sharing it as a demonstration of what is capable and does not seem to be working out of a corporate model. Click here to see the Show-and-Tell video that demonstrates this.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is another device I stumbled onto today. It is called a Tecla device. Click here for details. It allows you to use pushbuttons or joystick or other adaptive devices to control touchscreen devices such as android and iOS phones and tablets. This is an amazing accomplishment even though it doesn’t allow 100% full access it does allow some use of such gadgets. It is Arduino-based so I understand the underlying technology. However it is only available as a commercial product and the cost is $289 Canadian. My initial reaction was Holy $#!+ That’s outrageous! On further review it probably is a reasonable price for a commercially built product with all of the capability it includes. It has a variety of interfaces that are designed to work with pushbuttons and input controls that meet an industry standard for adaptive devices. It includes the capability to use one’s wheelchair joystick as an input device. Given that it has to be designed to work with a wide variety of devices and it is a commercial enterprise I can understand the price. At the point when I can no longer use my iPod touch, I will probably be buying one of these at whatever price they want to charge for it. I’m sure the people behind it are decent people. They describe themselves as not just for profit. And I certainly have no trouble with doing well while doing good as it were. On the other hand… If I knew what I was doing I could build something similar for about $75 worth of parts.

There has to be a happy medium in here somewhere. Perhaps an open source design that demonstrates the basic functionality and would allow others to adapted as needed combined with a fully developed commercial product with all the bells and whistles for those who don’t have a friend who is a DIY maker aficionado to put it together for them.

2 thoughts on “Assistive Technology at Both Ends of the Price Spectrum

  1. As DIY advocates, we too struggled with this paradox: Do we give stuff away for (almost) free as a DIY kit, risking a modest (though still valuable) impact that may die off due to lack of support or an insufficient critical mass of contributors? Or do we set up a full-fledged commercial venture with the risk of alienating the maker community in favour of a more sustainable and widespread impact?

    We did not have an answer, so we did both. The Tecla Shield is open source hardware… you can can find what you need to make your own at Check this one for example! Nobody should depend on us or anybody else to access what they have the right to access!

  2. Many thanks for the comment on my blog. I hope you understand I wasn’t picking on you guys. I really do understand the struggle you’re facing. The blog post was really expressing my feelings about that struggle. Someone else directed me to the github page for your project. I think in the end you have struck a pretty good balance. There are people out there who can really benefit from your ready to go project and would much rather pay for a commercial device like you sell. And we still have the option for the tinkerers like me who might want to build our own. And perhaps come up with innovations or improvements that could someday make its way into your commercial project. Keep up the good work.

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