Equipment Corner February-March 2005

by Tara Wood on Tue, 2005-02-01 17:00

Free Dasher programs easy as ABC

Karin Lewis probably never thought of herself as becoming a spokesperson for a computer program, but lately, that’s exactly what she’s been doing.

Lewis is "completely sold" on an innovative and free computer program called Dasher.

Dasher is a text-entry interface (translation: a program that helps you type or create text) for people who can’t use an ordinary keyboard. It was created by a team of physicists led by David MacKay at Cambridge University in Great Britain.

Lewis, 56, received a diagnosis of ALS about seven years ago, is just barely able to move her hands, and uses a power wheelchair for mobility. She worked as a secretary for General Atomics, a research and development firm until about two years ago.

Lewis uses Dasher to enter text for e-mails and other lengthy writing.

"I like it because it is easy to use — it’s practically effortless," said Lewis, who lives in the San Diego area, and read about the program on an Internet chat transcript.

A "hands-on learner" and not a computer expert, Lewis said the program was easy to download, and after some initial confusion, she soon mastered its use by playing around with it.

Dasher is just one kind of assistive technology that fills the gap for people who want to use a computer but aren’t able to input data by typing the traditional way.

And although much of the latest technology can be expensive, Dasher is a free "shareware" program that can be downloaded from the Internet.

How it works

You must be able see a screen, and in some way control the pointing mechanism of your computer. That’s usually done with a mouse, but also works with trackballs, touchpads, or eye-movement or head-tracking systems.

Karin Lewis
Karin Lewis

The only other requirement is that you must know the alphabet, Lewis said, since users select letters to form words from lists in alphabetical order.

Lewis sets a wireless mouse on her leg while tilted back in her wheelchair. She’s learning to use a head mouse for the time when she no longer can use her hands.

Dasher starts with a screen that’s divided into quadrants. On the far right side you have a jumble of characters that are initially in alphabetical order.

As you move the pointer to the right of the center vertical line, the characters start moving from right to left. Each letter is in a different color box, and the farther right you move, the faster the characters move.

You point to the character you want, and the screen zooms or magnifies the area around it. Once that character crosses the center line, it is selected and becomes part of your word.

After you pick a character you’re offered the entire alphabet for selecting the next letter.

Dasher has such built-in energy-saving features as word completion, and also learns the words you use most often.

For example, Lewis often types "Karin" so when she selects K, A is presented up front, and if she selects that, then it presents RIN as a block.

And it’s fun, too

Lewis said the text she types is saved to a generic file, like a "Notepad" program. Then she copies or cuts and pastes it into an e-mail or word processing program.

She sometimes uses an onscreen keyboard to enter numbers or for Web browsing, since Dasher doesn’t yet work for those functions.

A less tangible bonus of Dasher is the enjoyable challenge it provides. Often compared to a video game, Dasher permits users to build up speed quickly; the program’s creators say some users can type up to 25 words per minute.

"[The letters] come at you so fast, it becomes a challenge: How fast can I think and point and get the right words without making spelling mistakes," she said.

Lewis has enthusiastically spread the word about Dasher, but contacted MacKay and his team of developers just to make sure she "wasn’t stepping on any toes" by doing so.

In fact, because it’s a "shareware" program, the developers are open to suggestions about how to enhance Dasher, and those who know how can feel free to make changes to it.

Dasher can be loaded on to many handheld computers (pocket PCs) and laptops. Lewis said she heard about one person who incorporated it with a speech-generating program to create a low-cost communication device.

But especially since the price is right, Lewis hopes that others with ALS will try Dasher.

"I feel very strongly that a lot of people would benefit from this," she said. "It’s really amazing how it works. In 15 to 20 minutes you will be writing fluid sentences."

Download the Dasher program from this Web site, home of the Dasher Project at Cambridge University: www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher


Tip: You can also find the site by just entering the word "dasher" into Internet search engines like Google or Yahoo. Dasher is available in many languages, and can be used on Macintosh, Windows and Linux operating systems.

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