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The AutoVerbal Talking Soundboard speaks for those who can't

David Winograd

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The AutoVerbal Talking Soundboard (US$0.99 for the next few weeks) is the latest in the growing field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices available for the iPhone, iPod touch and (best of all) the iPad. An AAC device allows the autistic or vocally challenged to communicate without the use of sign language, which requires both parties to know sign language. As a universal app, running AutoVerbal on an iPad looks great and adds 9 backgrounds to choose from.

A user can use the keyboard to can type what s/he would like the app to say or tap on one of over 100 pre-programmed picture buttons to speak a word or phrase like " I need help" or "blueberry."

The 10 icons in the top row can be customized to say whatever you like. The screen is laid out in 16 topic-oriented rows (custom, medical, food, emotions, simple phrases like yes or no, people, places, things, vehicles, animals, activities, colors, shapes, numbers, letters, and days of the week and months). Scroll up or down to get to the appropriate row, and scroll left or right to choose between 8 and 19 buttons per row.

You have a choice of using big or small buttons, which is a great feature for those who are visually impaired. Opt for small buttons and an iPhone displays 5 buttons horizontally and 5 vertically in portrait mode or 7.5 X 3 buttons in landscape mode.

Big buttons gives you around 3 X 3 in portrait and 4 X nearly 2 in landscape mode. On an iPad, choosing small buttons shows a 6.5 X 5 grid in portrait and 8.5 X 5 buttons in landscape mode. Big buttons are quite a bit more usable on an iPad than on an iPhone showing 3 X 3.5 buttons in portrait and 4 X 2.5 buttons in landscape mode. Some are displayed fractionally since the last whole button doesn't appear. That's not a flaw, I feel, but a feature, since it prompts the user to scroll across the screen to show more buttons.

An option is provided to use a low or high-quality male voice to speak the customized buttons. The low-quality voice is quite intelligible and very quick. The high-quality voice requires an Internet connection since the heavy lifting is done on the No Tie Software servers, which delays response considerably. The delay can be a bit unnerving. If there is no Internet connection available, the app drops down to low-quality. Since the words behind the pre-programmed buttons are built into the app, I really don't see the need for the Internet option unless the majority of use will be typed input or custom buttons. One thing I didn't really like is that when using the high-quality voice on a typed phrase or custom button, the screen switches to the QuickTime movie player, plays the sound, and then switches back to AutoVerbal. There may be no way around that for all I know, but I would prefer a more elegant presentation.

If you tap a number of buttons in quick succession, the words or phrases will speak over themselves since AutoVerbal doesn't wait for one to finish before the next one is spoken. This might be a bit confusing for some users until they get the hang of it. The pictures used for the buttons are a combination of photos, cartoons and words which looked a bit schizophrenic to me, but clarity is the important part, and it was instantly apparent what each button represented.

You can't build phrases as in more fully featured apps such as the far more expensive Proloquo2Go, since each button functions independently, and so there are scarce adjectives and no verbs or prepositions. You also don't have the option of deleting unused buttons or tailoring anything other than the 10 customizable buttons in the first row. But I don't feel that AutoVerbal is meant to be a fully featured AAC system. What it does, it does very well and I'm sure it will be a valuable asset to the majority of speech-impaired users bringing basic communication to those that never had it before.

In a number of weeks the price will rise to $30, still a far cry from the $189 charged for the fully featured Proloquo2Go. So if you have any interest in, or need for AAC capabilities, I suggest that you buy it at a dollar right now. The introductory price is ridiculously cheap and it may give you just the capabilities you need. If you find yourself needing more, only then should you explore the more expensive and expansive options.

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