V-Pen – a low-tech/high tech communication aid

V-pen and boardBRITE recently had a demonstration of the Uni-Tech system which is an interesting mix of low tech communication boards and high-tech speech output.

Communication boards containing words, pictures or symbols are designed and printed out to suit the needs of the user.  The V-Pen will then speak out the words when it is touched on the paper.  More than 45,000 words are stored in the V-Pen.  Any words which are not recognised by the pen (e.g. unusual names) can be recorded in and will be recognised in future.

The secret behind the Uni-Tech system is that it prints a very faint ‘bar-code’ onto the paper.  Communication boards must be created in the software which comes with the pen so that the word or symbol can be referenced to the bar-code.  The V-Pen then sees this bar-code and speaks out the relevant message.

One thing electronic communication aid users should always have with them is a back-up system as no electronic device is faultless and batteries always run out (usually just when you need them most!).  A back-up is typically a book containing the words and phrases they would need most frequently.  With the Uni-Tech system the back-up is already there; if the pen runs out of batteries then the communication boards can still be used by pointing.

Why then, you might ask, complicate matters by having an electronic voice, when the individual could just point to the symbol?  There are many responses to that question, but the two main ones are:

1.  The individual may well prefer having a ‘voice’, plus people aren’t always facing you when you need to get their attention.

2. The individual can communicate in a more ‘natural’ manner i.e. face to face, without requiring the person they are talking to to step round behind them to see what they are pointing at.

It may seem obvious to state it, but to use this system the individual needs to have the dexterity to be able to hold the pen and move it to the relevant place on the board.  Boards can be printed in various sizes to suit the user’s accuracy with the pen.

One of the major advantages of this system is that it is easy to understand and operate.  Many high-tech communication aids are not used to full advantage as carers and staff are not able to update them with relevant vocabulary.  Inserting a new word or phrase and then printing out should be much easier and therefore much more likely that individuals’ vocabulary will stay up to date and relevant.

One current issue with the Uni-Tech system is that only certain models of printers can be used as the bar-codes need to be printed to a suitable standard so they are recognised by the V-Pen.

The suppliers of Uni-Tech in the UK are Ability World.

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