Over the last several years I've been dealing with various stages of disability thanks to ALS. My goal is to share solutions and review various products/tools/devices that I have found particularly helpful.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Microphones & Voice Recognition

It's been mentioned about for some time I rely quite heavily on voice recognition functionality to access my computer via Dragon naturally speaking (sometimes the Windows of voice recognition). However I have not discussed the pros and cons of the microphone/headset that I've tried. Some are obviously better than others and this of course changes as my condition deteriorates.

Something I should point out however is the exact nature of my limitations. I've lost almost all the dexterity in my hands and have very little use of my arms. I can scratch my nose, but I can no longer lift my hands/shoulders to place anything on my head.

There are some pros and cons to some of the headsets I've tried:

Wired headsets

Initially, I used wired headsets almost exclusively. However a few months ago there were two major factors that really started to be a problem for me. The first, as my dexterity degenerated it started become more and more difficult to get the headset on in a convenient and comfortable manner. The second, again to do with dexterity is at once that the headset is on, I have to contend with the wire which is often getting wrapped around my leg, falling down (then usually getting squashed under the wheel of my computer chair), getting hung up on the armrest, or otherwise being a pain in the butt.…

Since then, I've moved over to using almost exclusively a wireless headset. Nonetheless, there were some quality headsets and some work much better than others which Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Rocketfish PS3 Headset 

This is one of the first headsets on tried. And the cost of about $20 Canadian it worked exceptionally well. It has an extremely long USB wire which is intended for the PlayStation 3. E.g. from the couch some distance away. Not really a PC, but functionally it's plug and play. What I find worked exceptionally well but this was the boom for the microphone. It was long enough that it could be placed almost directly in front of your mouth and the foamy part on it was good enough to muscle out the sounds of your breathing. Therefore Dragon's comprehension of your speech was generally very good.

The noise cancellation is so good in fact, that I could actually have music playing softly to my PC speakers (or a game) and the voice recognition would still work very well. This headset was particularly designed for voice communications in gameplay environment, so if you're a gamer. You can pipe the communication audio through your headset and still listen to the game/music through your main speakers.

If my hands didn't make it impossible for me to put this on, this would still be my preferred headset. It's light, secure on your head and reasonably comfortable for longer period of time. However without dexterity, is extremely difficult place and adjust.

Corsair HS1 Gaming Headset

These are an exceptionally good quality gaming headset. It is also USB connection with a rather long wire. There initially given to me because I was having substantial difficulty recording my voice into modeltalker. For some reason, no matter what I tried there seem to be some form of electric hum recorded with my voice. This didn't seem to matter which headset I was using.

That said, these are a little heavy but very comfortable once they're on. Because they have very large over your head ear piece I was able to place them on my desk in such a way I could sort of wedge my head in between the earpieces. Push them into position and him lift my head off of the desk with my headphones roughly in place.

Unfortunately, the microphone is a little far away from my mouth for to work well with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I find I have to raise my voice quite a bit in order for it comprehend and even then. It doesn't work all that well for voice recognition. The other reason I think why, is even though there is a noise canceling function on the microphone it does not have a piece of foam over the microphone. Consequently the records more of your breathing and other undesired noises.

If you are using it just for gaming however, the audio quality through the headset is exceptionally good and your teammates should hear you talking to problem. The driver software also comes with a bunch of other tweaks that you can play with to modulate your voice and have all sorts of fun effects. My three-year-old particularly enjoys it rerecord his voice and make him sound like a cartoon character or a Dragon. ;-)

Again, I had to discontinue usage of these because of my dexterity limitations and fighting with the wire. There are however the heaviest of all the headphones I used and because of this, the but the progressive atrophy I doubt that I would be able to use them now for any length of time

This microphone retails for about C$100.

Wireless headsets

To be fair, I did not initially purchased these for use with my PC. I found that when I was out for my IVIG treatments which would last several hours, I would like to music listen to. Dealing with wired headsets with tiny little earbuds was nearly impossible. So I went looking for a set of Bluetooth headphones and found these. I found a retail for around $80-$100 in store. However with a little bit of online shopping, I found a pair on sale from Amazon for about $50 Canadian. And I have to say, I'm very pleased with the purchase and use them very regularly.

Although doesn't look it, once they are on they are extremely comfortable. The way almost nothing and is very easy to forget where. The battery life is extremely good and last seven or more hours of continual usage. As a matter of fact I would routinely leave the house for my IVIG appointment at 7 o'clock in the morning, start the music. Hardly ever stop it and be back home somewhere between one and 2 PM with plenty of battery life to spare.

The audio quality is very good, they do have mild noise cancellation which helps promote the clarity of which are listening to. That however are not designed to block out the sound of the outside world. You can still hear what's going on quite well, but the music or whatever you listen to is extremely clear. This also applies to receiving phone calls.

The built-in microphone is okay. I've been told I sound a little bit like I'm talking into a beer can when using. But other than that the audio quality is acceptable for the listener. I have tried the microphone with Dragon NaturallySpeaking on my PC. Well good enough for conversation, Dragon has substantial difficulty in understanding what I'm saying. Microphone is too far from my mouth and there seems to be too much noise detected.

So if you're in the market should be able to wear a pair of headphones almost all day, making phone calls with it and listen to music. These are very good purchase. Just don't expect to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking…

Oh, sure. My disability makes it impossible for me to put on by myself. However once they are on, I can forget that they are there and use them almost normally as anyone else would. And although it has happened, I rarely have to ask for help to put them back.

One neat little feature I have set up at home, is my raspberry pi Siri proxy home automation system. What's great, is that wearing these headphones as I approach my house once my iPhone (jail broken) detects my wireless network, it turns on hands-free mode (opens the microphone on the headset) and listen for a keyword to activate. All I have to do is say the keyword, verbally command my door to open and it unlocked. Wearing the headphones improves the voice recognition of my Siri proxy as I don't have to go fishing for my iPhone.

All in all, for me this is worth the price of admission.

Logitech BH870 - Bluetooth

This headset is now hard most commonly use voice recognition with my PC. I found it on TigerDirect at a reduced price for about C$30. At the time down from about C$110. Quite the deal, so I thought it was worth a try.

They have since reduced the price to about C$35.

All in all, from a comprehension standpoint it works quite well. Almost as well as the PlayStation three I heard headset. I do however find using this headset, Dragon comprehension seems to be a little bit slower than it otherwise would be. But I find if I slow down my rate of speech, it manages reasonably well.

The headset does have a noise canceling function, but it does seem to be consistently transmitting some form of noise to my PC. The Dragon icon frequently shows that it's processing. Even when I'm not detecting any noise myself in the environment. I most certainly cannot use this headset while gaming or playing music.

Even with my dexterity limitations, I'm still able to get this ear piece on by myself. It is a little bit tricky, but I am able to do so. One of my pet peeves about your pieces of this nature is they tend to wiggle the mirror hanging from your ear. This drives me nuts. This particular headset is reasonably secure, but still have that annoying wiggle when I move. Because of this, it also tends to pick up a scratching noise from my beard. That said, because of my dexterity issues still I'm not very comfortable wearing this headset out of the house. I prefer the backbeat headphones. They feel much more secure to me.

One nice feature I like about them, is that I compare the headset to both the USB dongle it comes with for my PC and my iPhone at the same time. So for making phone calls, this is great…I recently found an unlimited usage phone plan for my iPhone. This is great, as my phone is much easier for me to manipulate a regular phone.

And because this your pieces intended to be used with the PC, it will naturally integrate itself with a soft phone such as Skype. I've used it for Skype a couple times now. The call quality has been very good.

It comes with a bunch of headset options Such as different earpieces and in over the headband. This is great if you could be using a prolonged periods of time or if you have a larger/smaller earlobe. He viewed a few options. The one silly thing I find about it is discharging unit. It is very tight to slide the earpiece in and out of the charger. I can still do it, but it's getting increasingly difficult.

The battery will last several hours.

So far this is among the best options I have found using voice recognition wirelessly on my PC.
This is a free app available from the iTunes App Store and I know that android offers a similar app.

This app is a very pleasant surprise. It works extremely well and comprehending your speech indicating the commands to your computer. I've tried it even just sitting it on my desktop and talking added. Not even having it that close to my mouth. Again the comprehension was exceptional. I would say, by far the best of anything I've tried. That said however, it is unlikely it would work nearly as well if there is music playing or if your gaming. I've not tried either of these situations as I don't expect it to work.

Dragon microphone connects to your PC through your Wi-Fi interface. Not Bluetooth. You don't need any additional dongle or Bluetooth functionality on your PC. Just your Wi-Fi enabled router. Set up was extremely simple. Simply create a profile… Start the app… And that's about it.Upgrading from my 3GS to my iPhone 5 was even easier. Simply had to install the app on my iPhone. No profile update or anything.

The only annoying feature I have found is that if you have the power save mode on your iPhone to turn the screen off. Then it also turns off the voice recording of the app. Making you have to press the home button and unlock the screen once again. This can be rather annoying… Especially with dexterity limitations.

That said, it's something that you can turn off when the iPhone's general settings. But once again, annoying.

Especially for the price, this is really good way to go and it could well fit better with some of your dexterity limitations that does mine. So if you are running Dragon dictation and are looking for a wireless microphone, iPhone or android this is definitely worth trying before investing any money.


My preferences really depend on what I'm doing. Anything to do with my PC I use the Logitech hands-free headset. It works very well and is reasonably priced. But as I mentioned, I'm not very comfortable wearing it out of house.

For general usage with my iPhone, especially when I'm out the back beat 903+ headphones are by far my preferred choice. Excellent sound quality, extremely comfortable and works quite well with Siri, but not so hot with Dragon NaturallySpeaking…

Friday, 19 July 2013

Reading without thumbs

It's been a long time now since my hands have let me hold on to anything. Papers are particularly a problem, and I can forget books. However I do want to keep up on my literature from time to time. I particularly enjoyed reading on my iPad. I have an iPad three, with the retina display which makes the reading experience really quite enjoyable. Sure, I can't use all of the features that easily anymore, but I can still tell the reader to scroll and or turn the page.

For a while I used a folding cover for in this worked okay for a while. But where I'm at now, this is extremely awkward to get set up and sometimes a pain in the butt to keep his position.

A while back, a friend of mine posted a picture of himself using something from the Apple store called a hover bar. This is essentially a flexible bar that you clamped to your table with a flexible arm which is about 2 feet long. Your iPad snaps into this, you bend it into position and it holds itself up right.

I thought this was quite a neat idea worth trying. They were however asking C$80 for it, which seemed a little bit much. So I decided to try an exact copy of it I found on Amazon.com for about $50 called a GMYLE® Black 360º One-way Clamp Adjustable Arm Stand . The only difference that I could tell was in the clamping mechanism. As opposed to using an Allen key, it has a built in arm to turn a screw on clamp.

I'm reasonably pleased with the purchase, I am however trying to figure out how to make the best use of it. Not quite worked out all the kinks yet. Is what works and what doesn't:

  • hold the iPad in position as advertised
  • makes it possible to read fairly comfortably.
  • Will support nearly unlimited positions and orientations
  • you can clamp it just about anywhere (even a hospital bed if need be)
not quite so awesome:
  • as my arms and hands are extremely weak, it can be very difficult to reposition.
  • The ball joint on the back can be a little loose, causing the iPad pitch down out of position.
  • once my iPad is clipped, there's absolutely no way I can get it out myself
Little bit of both:
  • depending on what I'm doing, it can make it easier to access certain features or parts of the screen or more difficult. For example reading iBooks or magazine once it's open is much easier. However maybe pushing the "library" button within ibooks might be more difficult to reach.
All in all, I'm reasonably pleased with it. I don't know if I would have been quite as happy if I had purchased the $80 version and had the same difficulties with it. But for $50 it feels like money well spent and does help me keep reading and very pleasant format. The iPad is great for reading a wide variety of formats… I'm particularly enjoying the walking dead graphic novels and popular science magazines from the newsstand. Unfortunately it's not helping me get back into playing even some of the simpler games I have to pass the time (Magic the gathering on iPad is great).

final verdict?
Not totally sure… Thumbs up or thumbs down.
Honestly, little bit of both.
I had however hoped it would worked with Griffin Beacon as my remote. While it communicates fine, it doesn't help me with the ease of access. I still prefer to go back to my iPhone that.

It will however be a great set up for videos and Netflix.

So all in all, I have to admit I'm not totally sure if it's a 100% thumbs-up or thumbs down. It solves some problems but incurs a few others. So I'll say this, if you have the spare cash it's worth a try. I do enjoy being able to comfortably read again, and not being tethered to my PC to do so… So I guess that's a little more of that thumbs-up.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Unreal Script Lessons… From days past

Something Completely Off Topic…

My life before ALS.
Unreal scripting & game programming.

The other day I was thinking about my life before ALS and for some reason I started thinking about my old teaching job. I've not mention it before but I used to teaching introductory game programming. Specifically mod authoring for Unreal Tournament 2003 using the built-in unreal scripting language. In these classes we would teach students how to take what was a first-person shooter and turn it into, well any other form of game solely through the scripting interface.

While these lessons are now dated, especially since unreal engine 3 has come out the structure of the script has changed. The fundamentals of the scripting language have not. For example if you want to modify one of the weapons functions or the player controller it might be in a different place in the script, but the principles of the language to make the changes are the same.

So in light of my situation in dealing with ALS, I've decided to share all of these lessons with the world. I just copied my old folder straight up to my Google drive account. So there is probably some traffic for you to sift through. But all of the lessons are there, free for you to use as you will. The only thing I would appreciate is if you use them in a public sense, please put a note in your script somewhere as to where you found the reference.

I hope they're still useful, and that you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed teaching them back in the day.

Introduction to C++ programming course

in my last semester teaching, before I landed a job in the games industry I was also asked to do a standing course for introductory programming for nonprogrammers. The goal of this course was to give a whirlwind introduction to C++ programming so that the students would have a basic familiarity with how to code.

If memory serves, these lessons were all written using Visual Studio 6.0. Shouldn't be a problem to port this all over to newer compilers.

These lessons are not quite as complete as the unreal scripting lessons as they were done more on the fly on the whiteboard so there are no  PowerPoint walk-throughs. Nonetheless are some notes with explanations and a few very basic coding samples to help people get started.