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.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Voxcommando and the Blue Snowflake microphone

As you know, I've been in progress of transferring my computer usage from the desktop to something more portable. My Windows Surface 3 tablet. Part of the reason for doing so is in preparation for the likelihood that ALS will eventually take or compromised my ability to speak. Setup is going rather well, but in the meantime my voice is still hanging in there! Which is great as this gives me another level of control over my computer environment.

Obviously, one of the first things I did was install Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictation. And one of the first things that became apparent, was the built-in microphone on my tablet… To state it politely… Sucks for dictation. It is however just fine for things like a Skype.

Secondly, one of the biggest things that I have found to be missing from the Dragon naturally speaking basic and premium is the ability to execute macros by voice. Sure, the premium edition (which is the one I have, version 11.5) allows you to create some custom commands. But these extend to being little more than pasting predefined text… So far other than items like your address, phone number and perhaps a few passwords… It is not terribly useful. You cannot tell it to do a set of predefined actions or anything more complicated. Above all, there is no way to use the Windows key through voice commands. This removes very basic, managerial functionality from my desktop and that it use all the time. Such as snapping a window to the left or right of the screen…

Sure, you can do this in the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional edition, but you need to be prepared to spend over $500 and the a programmer.

This brings us to:

The Blue Snowflake Microphone

like I said, for dictation the built-in microphone on the tablet doesn't work very well. I was continually getting poor audio quality warnings and disconnections. As you know, if you use Dragon it recommends using a headset for the best results. Having ALS and no function of my Hands eliminates that option for me. So after looking around at a few desktop microphone options, and trying a few cheap alternatives. I settled on trying in blue snowflake.

I found it on Amazon.ca for about $50. It is small, compact and sits nicely on the top right-hand corner of my tablet. There are no drivers to install or manage. Just plug it in via USB and it works! It is advertised as providing a near professional sound recording quality. And though I have not tried it for that specifically. It works extremely well with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Almost as well as a headset. I do have a few misrecognitions, but the frequency is such that it could be just the changes to my speech brought on by the wonderful ALS. When using it in a quiet environment, I have very few poor quality audio warnings.

Apparently, the microphone is somewhat directional as well. Which would obviously help with eliminating the background noise.

The one issue I have found is more to do with the tablet and anything else. It has a single USB port. Into which I have to run my eye tracker and the microphone, necessitating a hub. It would seem that the power supply from the tablet to the house is ever so slightly insufficient to power both (three if you count the hub) devices. The eye tracking seems to fail and reset a bit more frequently as opposed to when it is directly plugged into the tablet.

This could be a simple fix, I have yet to try it. But I may just have to find a different hub which has its own power supply.

Long story short, the blue snowflake microphone is a relatively inexpensive, and excellent upgrade to the system. The far superior to any other best top microphone I have used.


As mentioned above, Dragon NaturallySpeaking really is excellent for dictation but has a huge gap in what I would consider essential functionality for voice control over your computer. This gap is filled in beautifully by Voxcommando. In short, it allows you to the family easily set up predefined VoiceCommands which can be used to execute a macro on your system. It also comes with a whole bunch of predefined plug-ins which will also allow you to voice control your:
  1. Vera home automation system 
  2. Hue lights
  3. iTunes
  4. XBMC (Both local and remote)
  5. Windows media Center
These are but a few of the default profiles it comes with. As you become more familiar with it though is a whole bunch more plug-ins you can modify and work with. All relatively easily.

As you know, I've been playing with home automation systems for some time. I've tried voice control through Siri proxy and raspberry pi, writing my own Windows  speech recognition scripts and so forth to varying degrees of success. But right out-of-the-box, if you run Voxcommando in Vera or Hue mode. After a few minor settings like the IP address and generating XML (by pushing a button and voxcommando) you will have voice control over your environment. Which for me is huge! It is by far the easiest way to get voice control.

For me, I have found it works very nicely in conjunction with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. As a matter of fact, both programs are running right now I have Dragon actively dictating, with Voxcommando in standby mode. Where it passively listens but will not activate the command unless a prefix word is said first. So what I typically do, is I tell Dragon to "go to sleep" and then use my keywords followed by the command to activate voxcommando. Then, whenever you turn to dictation simply tell Dragon to "wake up".

As with anything, there is of course a bit of a learning curve. But, setting up the basic commands is extremely easy and the website provides some very good tutorials for getting started.

Voxcommando has lots of default Windows command you can work work to manage your environment. Including the Windows key. However, being the geek that I am and wanting to completely have dominion over my systems… It is very easy to marry up voxcommando with auto hotkey. This gives you complete control to do literally anything. Just to give you an idea, I've always found desktop real estate to be at a premium. Even more so on the tablet where screen space is limited. Using voxcommando with auto hotkey, it is very easy to create a script that will snap a window to say the top left of the screen. Rather than just the the left side.

The script for auto hotkey was also very easy to write. You could either write a whole bunch of one off the scripts that do specific things. But personally I found this to be cluttered and unpleasant to manage. I use a single script which is executed by voxcommando which passes in a command line parameter (e.g. SnapTopLeft) which is caught and then executed by auto hotkey.

If you use voice control for anything, or even want to give it a try. I highly recommend voxcommando. It is a free unrestricted trial, meaning all features are available but will require a restart after I believe 25 commands. If you want to buy it, it is only $40 Canadian which provides you with to license keys.

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Wheelchair Powered Holiday with Walt Disney

Before talking about the generalities of being disabled and taking a holiday at Walt Disney in Florida, we had one experience there that really stood out. To be honest, it's really the reason why I'm writing this post.

So on with show…

One day 2 we chose to go to Epcot Center. The weather wasn't particularly great, lots of rain and even a tornado warning in the morning. Shortly after arriving, I had the misfortune of driving my wheelchair over one of the collector pins someone has lost and getting a flat tire on my wheelchair. Needless to say this sucks at the best of time. It is exponentially worse on holiday! But how did Disney's staff dealt with it was truly exceptional.

Fortunately, this happened reasonably close to the entrance and stroller rentals when we went to seek help. Honestly I was expecting a little more than uses the phone and being handed a phone book. But the staff at stroller rentals (in particular Andrea, John and Elliott) truly went above and beyond to get me back on my holiday. Even though I spent five hours with them trying to fix the flat, they turned the day around. Here is just some of the efforts they made:
  • Went through their stock and equipment to see if they could make the repairs themselves. Once they could not they 
  • Offered me a motorized scooter rental for the cost of the deposit only. Would have been a $50 reduction.
  • Generous, but this wouldn't work for me because of my specific disabilities.
  • Offered to arrange transport of the chair back to our resort
  • Andrea took her private vehicle to go to the nearest garage to buy some emergency repair spray. This unfortunately did not work.
  • Andrea then tracked down the local dealership for my model, wheelchair and arrange for a service man to come out.
  • Although it took several hours for him to arrive, the staff would check in with me offer me drinks at no charge and even a blanket to keep warm (it got a bit cooler in the afternoon with the bad weather)
  • loaned me a manual wheelchair so my wife could take me to the washroom
The dealer was quite far from the resort so between labor and the callout fee, the repair would have cost us a bit over $200. Expensive, but it's not like we had a choice. At this point I would've considered the problem resolved with already a generous effort on the part of staff… But this is just where it starts. Andrea then:
My wife and I With Andrea (image right)
  • Give us Premium passes to the best area to watch the evening fireworks
  • one (mega) fast pass. Essentially, it permitted us to jump any line to any attraction in the parks.
  • A coupon for four deserts anywhere in the park.
  • When my boy came back from the Nemo exhibit, he was all excited and talking about what he saw. She went to her office and came back and gave him a stuffed Nemo animal.
  • Shortly afterwards, she asked about other characters. She then gave him dory as well (the bluefish) this really made my boys day.
  • She called the hotel to arrange for a "surprise". When we got back to our room, on the couch we found balloons, and activity book with crayons and a stuffed Goofy animal.
  • While talking with the hotel manager about a situation, the hotel manager offered to pay half the cost of the wheelchair repair!
Like I said, these efforts would truly above and beyond. They completely turned the day around. Sincerest thanks from my family to Andrea and her team at stroller rentals, Epcot Center.

The more general Disney holiday

Even though the wife is a huge Walt Disney fan and loves going to the resorts. One of the biggest reasons we choose to go was for its accessibility to the disabled. I have to say, it is well arranged for that.

Yes, that is me hanging off the left side of the bus
it is quite a different way to ride ;-)
When we booked our holiday with Disney, they sent us special yellow tags for our luggage. So when we arrive at the airport, we never even have to worry about them. They catch up with us at the resort. All we have to do is report to do Disney bus service. Which has a wheelchair lift as well.

We stayed the art of animation of animation resort in the wheel well motel (my boy loves lightning McQueen as well). It is the first hotel I stayed at which points to be wheelchair accessible, and it truly is. There is lots of room for me to get around in my wheelchair and, most importantly. They had a wheelchair friendly shower.

We toured several of the resorts. Starting with magic kingdom, followed by Epcot Center, Hollywood studios and finally animal kingdom. Throughout, I was able to easily take my wheelchair just about everywhere and even to a number of rides with my boy… Yes, in my wheelchair! Including a Safari at animal Kingdom!Even though I could not be right with him on all the rides as he had to ride with an adult and my wheelchair would take up most of the car. I could still share in the experience with him which was important for both of us.

Getting from the resort to the attractions was actually really easy. They provide a shuttle bus service and each has two or more places for wheelchairs. And because of the wheelchair, who are usually first on and last off. Which was great for the days where the weather was less appealing. What is more, all of the drivers were great and super careful about how they attached me and my chair.

On top of all that, I really have to hand it to the Disney's staff. In addition to the above story with the flat tire. Everyone was super friendly and helpful. To give you an idea, coming back from the fireworks at Epcot Center it was late, and pouring rain. My boy was only 4 1/2 was extremely tired and tried to fall asleep on me. We're all wearing ponchos so we were "reasonably" dry (relatively speaking of course). We past the somewhat random groundskeeper who saw this. He stopped us and handed us a spare poncho to try to keep him dry. No cost, no nothing. Just a thank you and a desire to help.

The Disney ethos is truly impressive.

If I had to hold anything against the holiday, too minor things. The first, being our fault. We mistakenly booked during the American Thanksgiving holiday. So it was extremely busy. Secondly, the companion bathrooms were a little bit hard to find and spread out. Not that I needed them often, but when I did…

All in all, two very minor things to an excellent Disney holiday. If you have a disability and are looking to get away with family. Highly recommended.