By: Darwin Wan, MS II
Speech and language difficulties are a feature of many different medical disorders, ranging from developmental disorders such as autism, to cerebrovascular diseases such as stroke. While a variety of communication aids are already available on the market, many can be quite large, cumbersome, unwieldy and expensive, especially when the “medical” label is attached to it.
Developed by a team from the University of Toronto, MyVoice Communication Aid aims to disrupt this paradigm by offering an iPhone app (Android upcoming) designed to help patient overcome the challenges of speech. The most notable advantage this app offers over other devices is that it is available on mobile phones; no additional physical devices are required.
Another immediate advantage is that the app is presently offered for free for 6 months, so there is no barrier to any patient with a compatible phone to try it, though it has been reported that it may eventually become subscription based, priced at $30 per month.
Upon opening the app, one is presented with a hierarchy of words and categories. One is able to navigate through categories to select desired word or phrase. Tapping on the words prompts the app to speak the word or phrase in a fairly natural-sounding (though not perfect) voice.
While the pre-programmed phrases provide some very basic functionality, it is in the customizability where the app truly shines. Via an online management system on the MyVoice website, you are able to organize and create new word, phrases and sentences according to your own preferences and organization. Or you can simply add pre-existing word dictionaries (with themes of sports, food etc.) to your account. Any changes you make to your online account are synced instantly with a drag of the finger on the app.
The app is generally quite good at pronouncing your custom phrases, though it did definitely struggle on most of the medical terminology I tried. It would be useful if the pronunciation of medical terms could be fixed, as it would be very useful for patients trying to describe their condition to others. One can also add photos for each phrase if desired.
Another feature is the ability to use your phone’s GPS to find your location and present you with your custom phrases based on your location. In the example below, I have added a few phrases to the website and associated it with “School”. Whenever I am in school, hitting the “Find Location” button would bring up a list of nearby locations from which I can select “School”, and be presented with my custom phrases.
While there is definitely a lot to like about the app, it does take some effort to scroll through to find the exact phrases that one desires. In testing the app out at a barbecue, I found it difficult to participate in conversations with the fluency and manner with which I would normally talk. Simple and quick messages were easy to convey, but in depth conversations definitely proved to be a challenge. I do imagine this to be a limitation of all communication aids in general, not just a mark against this app in particular.
Though the syncing mechanism between the app and website works very smoothly, I did find myself triggering inadvertently fairly often. The app also syncs every time it is opened or awakened from sleep. The net result was that I found the battery on my phone draining quite quickly. I imagine that regular use of the app throughout the day would probably necessitate charging the phone every day, or a battery case for heavier users. The user interface on the app and website also both have a bit of a learning curve, so users would be best advised to check out the tutorial on the website.
Overall, MyVoice Communication Aid is an excellent app that has the potential to really enhance the lives of a specific subset of patients with speech difficulties. I imagine that patients with pure dysarthria will benefit from this app the most because their motor and cognitive abilities are good. Patients with poor fine motor control may find it a bit difficult to navigate through the iPhone’s smaller screen, while patients with poor reading or comprehension ability may find it difficult to pick phrases. MyVoice is certainly not a cure for all the speech problems in the world, but it definitely can play a huge role in enhancing the lives of patients with speech difficulties.
- Excellent tool for patients with speech difficulties but good motor and cognitive function
- Powerful customization options allow users to input and organize custom phrases
- Smooth syncing between the management website and the mobile app
- Innovative use of the GPS function to pull up location-specific phrases
- Drains battery noticeably with frequent syncs
- Navigation can be cumbersome and disrupt the flow of a conversation
- Patients with fine motor difficulties may benefit from an iPad version of the app (not customized for iPad currently)
- Free (possibly subscription-based in the future)
- MyVoice is an outstanding communication aid that is very customizable, and free to try at the moment. Patients with pure speech difficulties will benefit the most, while those with motor or cognitive difficulties may be unable to use the app.