On August 22, 2008, University of Washington Electrical Engineering Ph.D candidate Jon Malkin spoke about the Vocal Joystick (VJ) project at the Gnomedex 8.0 tech conference:

The Vocal Joystick is software that will allow people with physical disabilities to use computers more freely. It maps vowel sounds to spatial directions, allowing someone to interact with a computer or mechanical device such as a robotic arm using his or her voice. While traditional speech-recognition software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking is good for typing, using it to control a computer mouse—by saying "up," "down," "left," "right," etc.,—is awkward. Thus, such software is not helpful for playing many video games. But the VJ uses volume, pitch and vowel quality to create continuous movement, similar to how one's hand controls a computer mouse. (In fact, you can see someone use the VJ to play a Flash game 7 min, 21 sec into Malkin's talk above).

While the project is still in progress, in one study from 2006 (PDF here) with nondisabled subjects the VJ did as well as or better than an eye-tracking device at target acquisition (e.g. clicking on a circular object that appears in different portions of the computer screen) and web browsing. Another study involving more than forty children (ages six to fourteen) showed that kids created their own sounds when they could not produce the pre-programmed ones exactly. As the study concludes: "This sort of feedback is invaluable in redesigning the VJ system to be more customized for the human perceptional system. Since this initial demonstration, we have greatly improved the VJ-engine."

The Vocal Joystick is available for Windows and Linux; there's a plan to release the source code in the future.

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.
Tera Kirk

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