Head Mouse, Virtual Clickers Provide Hands-Free Computer Access

by Alyssa Quintero on Thu, 2009-01-01 09:16

Look Ma! No hands!

Kristen Sauer, who’s had ALS for eight years, uses the SmartNav and her laptop to run a successful home business, pay her family’s bills, communicate via e-mail and much more.

Hand and arm weakness can make it fatiguing and frustrating to use a computer’s conventional keyboard and mouse. So, why not try using your head?

For some with ALS, a head mouse, or head tracker, provides an effective way to maintain communication and computer access. These devices typically are used in conjunction with specialized communication software, onscreen keyboards and mouse-clicking solutions.

Staying connected


The SmartNav AT package provides a complete hands-free computer solution —
including built-in onscreen keyboard and mouse-clicking capabilities — to people who are unable to use a traditional keyboard and mouse.

For Kristen Sauer of Waupin, Wis., computer access is crucial to maintaining her home-based business, communicating with family and friends, and other activities.

Seven years ago, when ALS made it difficult and exhausting to use a standard mouse and keyboard, Sauer, 32, put her money on the SmartNav ($499), a hands-free mouse solution manufactured by NaturalPoint.

“Using a computer the conventional way can be very taxing,” Sauer wrote via e-mail. “My shoulders, wrists and back would ache after a short time. The SmartNav took the exhaustion and pain away, and I could enjoy the computer again! I wouldn’t be able to use a computer at all without it.”

Sauer, who has no functional movement from the shoulders down, relies on the SmartNav 3 AT package for complete computer control. A small infrared camera mounts to the top of Sauer’s Windows-based laptop (about 2 feet away) and a paper-thin reflective dot attaches to her eyeglasses; she moves her head, and the cursor moves to the desired location. Cursor speed is adjustable, and less than an inch of head movement is enough to move it across the screen.

It sounds simple, but the head mouse itself is only one part of the equation. A head mouse can move the cursor around the screen — but that’s it. To achieve complete hands-free computer access, users usually require two other components — an onscreen keyboard for typing and a secondary clicking solution to make selections.

Making it work

Sauer uses an onscreen keyboard called OnScreen ($119) from RJ Cooper and Associates. It has a WordComplete feature that attempts to complete the word being typed based on your commonly used words. (In contrast, word prediction attempts to type ahead based on what the user already has typed.)

Typing a letter or e-mail with the onscreen keyboard takes longer than using a regular keyboard, but “it isn’t bad with practice,” Sauer said.

Sauer also uses the SmartNav software’s built-in dwell-clicking toolbar for making right and left mouse clicks. For example, when surfing the Internet, she just points to move the cursor to the desired location, dwells (lingers in one spot), and the head mouse clicks to select. (The SmartNav’s dwell time is adjustable.)

The dwell-clicker has all the capabilities of a mouse, including allowing the user to drag objects around the screen. Sauer simply selects the “drag object” button and moves her head in the direction she wants the object to go.

Then she holds her head still for a fraction of a second to release the drag option.

“I know it sounds complicated, but it very quickly becomes second nature,” she reported.

A variety of uses...

With her laptop and SmartNav, Sauer:

  • runs a home business putting VHS tapes, 8mm reels, pictures and slides on DVDs;
  • maintains the books for her husband’s electrical business;
  • helps her son with homework and school projects;
  • pays her family’s bills and shops online;
  • uses an Internet relay service to make phone calls;
  • controls the television, VCR, DVD player and satellite dish;
  • communicates via e-mail with family, friends and medical experts; and
  • corresponds with people with ALS and caregivers in online support groups and chats.

“The SmartNav has made a huge difference,” Sauer said. “I use it to make phone calls, which allows me to be home alone, and I can call if I need anything or if there’s an emergency. And, without the SmartNav, running my business wouldn’t be possible. I wouldn’t be able to edit photos and video, design the DVD covers and labels, or communicate with my clients.”

In addition, Sauer sometimes uses the text-to-speech software installed on her laptop, although her DynaVox V is her primary speech-generating device.

“I have separate devices because if my laptop gets a virus or breaks down, I’m not left without a speech device,” Sauer explained. “And, the DynaVox V doesn’t have enough power to run the software for my DVD business.”

Unfortunately, SmartNav isn’t compatible with her DynaVox V software, so she uses TrackerPro ($995, manufactured by Madentec) to operate the DynaVox, along with the OnScreen software and a dwell-clicking solution.

The TrackerPro doesn’t require additional software to work, but Sauer sees that as a drawback. For example, if she needs to adjust the TrackerPro’s cursor speed, all she can do is make the standard Windows mouse adjustments.

Sauer said she prefers the SmartNav over the TrackerPro because it allows better fine-tuning of the cursor speed, and requires much less effort to move the cursor.

“I can’t imagine life without the SmartNav,” Sauer emphasized. “I would be limited to watching the world go by. Instead, I can communicate with others and be productive.”

To learn more about the new SmartNav 4, which includes built-in dwell-clicking software and virtual onscreen keyboard for an all-in-one AT package, visit Natural Point, or call (888) 865-5535. NaturalPoint also offers a SmartNav 4 upgrade discount to previous customers.


See also:

Alyssa Quintero
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