Hands-free is a usually a term used to describe cell phone technology that allows for safer mobile phone use in cars. Being able to operate a phone or other gadgets in a car without taking your hands off the wheel is something that many automobile manufacturers are working on, but software giant Microsoft is coming out with a hands-free systems that are not for cars, but instead are designed for ALS patients and others who need to use eye movement to communicate.
At the recent music festival SXSW in Texas, Microsoft displayed their system for composing and playing music. Designed in conjunction with patients who have ALS and must use eye movement detection devices to speak, the technology can give something back to patients who were avid musicians before their illnesses took away the ability to play or compose. SXSW is the premier musical gathering for well-known musicians as well as indie bands and the not yet famous. The first part of the MS system is the Hands-Free Sound Jam. Microsoft calls it "eye-controlled music environment for electronic loop-based performance and composition." It's a combination of software that is similar to what's available for Macs and PCs, but it's adapted to be controlled by eye movement.
It works around a central operation of a "clip launcher." Clip launchers take small bits of music and align them together, efficiently launching them in sync with the beats of a particular song. While musicians who have the full use of their arms and hands use computer programs like this with ease, it's not possible for patients who have ALS and have limited movement and speech. Adapting the system so that it could be operated with eye-movement is opening the world of musical performance and composition to patients who thought their enjoyment of making music ended when their disease began.
Ann Paradiso, who is a user experience manager on Microsoft's Enable Team, told Fox News at the SXSW Interactive Festival, "We're a bunch of nerds, we know technology. This collaboration shows people what's possible with technology. We believe that our collaborations with the ALS community help to restore hope, a sense of purpose." Clips launched by the users can also be edited with Sound Jam, and the program automatically saves whatever is created when a user quits the program.
Another sound device featured at SXSW is the Hand-Free Sound Machine. This device is also controlled by eye movements and allows users to assemble and edit .wav and .midi files. These bits of music and sound can then be outputted directly to instruments or be used for sound effects in video productions. The Microsoft Enable Team works on technologies that assist the disabled, but very often these technologies are about necessary adaptive devices that can help patients dress, eat or travel around. To have accessories that can give back the passion and joy that ALS patients get from music is something equally necessary, but often overlooked.
Jeremy Best, a musician, and ALS patient stated at SXSW, "I had been playing drums my whole life and for three years before ALS. Among the many things ALS has taken away from me is the ability to sing and play and compose, all things I dearly loved. It has restored hope that someday I could compose and play again, something I had given up on. Hope is a huge thing when you have a chronic disease."