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RFID Gives Voice to Nonverbal Children

Thanks to its built-in RFID interrogator, the Logan ProxTalker can identify words that autistic children want to say—and utter them on their behalf.
By Claire Swedberg
May 19, 2009When nonverbal students at New York Public Schools District 75 in Queens first got their hands on the Logan ProxTalker, developed by Connecticut start-up company ProxTalker.com, they began communicating. According to Karen Gorman, the district's assistive technology evaluation coordinator, it all started with a simple "good morning." But when the children—who are not able to speak due to multiple disabilities, such as autism—began working with the device given to them by their teacher, they were soon putting together entire sentences.

The Logan ProxTalker, approximately the size of a laptop computer, was designed by Glen Dobbs, ProxTalker.com's president, and Kevin Miller, the company's VP. The device employs radio frequency identification to help a child instruct the machine what to say, and comes with an RFID interrogator and tags—known as Sound Tags—each with a word or phrase, and usually a corresponding image, printed on the front. When a child moves a tag over the machine, it announces the word that tag represents.

Logan Dobbs, the autistic son of ProxTalker.com's president, uses the device named in his honor.
Dobbs' 11-year-old son, Logan, is autistic and does not speak. Like other children with speech impairments, he used the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), whereby a child can select tiles with images printed on the front, place them in a specific order to express what he or she wishes to say, and then show the arrangement to a teacher or parent. The problem with that system, Dobbs says, is that it does not work when a caretaker or other adult has not been trained to understand it. Another drawback with PECS, he says, is that it doesn't help children speak out or be heard when they need to say something—from the backseat of a car, for instance.

The Logan ProxTalker gives a voice to a child's chosen words. Each device comes with a row of five pads on which a Sound Tag can be placed, enabling the user to string words together in order to construct a sentence. Each pad has a coil antenna connected to a single Texas Instruments RFID reader chip in the device. The Sound Tags, manufactured by Vanguard ID Systems, contain a 13.56 MHz tag complying with the ISO 15693 standard. When a tag is moved near one of the pads, the Logan ProxTalker reads the corresponding word out loud.

"We dialed the read range down so that it would have to be very near, or on the button, to be read," Dobbs says. Although the tag must be close, it need not be exactly on the pad for the tag's ID number to be captured. That makes it a better technological choice than bar codes or LEDs for an optical system, he notes, both of which would have required a much closer and tighter positioning of the tag in order to be properly read.

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