Palsy, Aging, and Implants

Palsy, Aging, and ImplantsA recent post on LockerGnome dealt sensitively with the issues a person suffering from palsy has, particularly in using computers from the perspective of a person who has the affliction. I resonate with his predicament because most of my clients are seniors with some type of physical limitation. Not everyone will suffer from palsy, but all of us who live long enough will be compromised by various features of aging. In particular, all of us will suffer from varying degrees of arthritis and decreased ability to see or hear things.

If you are ever bothered by wrist fatigue when working at a computer, think what it would be like if you had to strain to close your fingers enough to hold a mouse securely because your arthritis limits finger motion, and it hurts. Imagine your frustration if, in attempting to click on an icon, your cursor moved every time and caused you to miss opening the application you want. You can see it, but clicking is difficult.

Readers who are too young to need bifocal glasses do not share the frustration of being forced to constantly tip their head up and down to bring the monitor into focus and then shift to the keyboard or reading material. Even worse is the difficulty of reading what is on a monitor if you have macular degeneration, which is also an aspect of aging. I find that variable focal length lens suitable for activities like driving, eating, and generally hanging out are not the best for working at my desk. Like many seniors, I have separate reading glasses, but because of the nuisance of changing them, most often simply put up with the head tipping routine to get the focus I need. People with advanced macular degeneration do not have that option. They can only see with peripheral vision. Glasses cannot correct that.

These are not hypothetical examples. They are where we are all heading — those of us who are lucky enough to live long enough to experience these problems.

Over the years I have developed suggestions for elderly people who have trouble with using a mouse. These include such things as dragging their little finger and thumb on the mouse pad to give stability and anchor the mouse. Sometimes these types of adjustments work fine. A better solution is to use a different technology for input. Some use a roller ball. Other clients have found the touchpad to be a better input device, whether on a laptop or as an accessory for a desktop.

Because of this, I think it is no coincidence that many seniors have taken to using a pad for simple tasks such a checking email or surfing. A touchscreen is more user-friendly for people with arthritis than the classic mouse in all its variations. Yet I have never seen an advertisement that emphasized that aspect of using a pad instead of a mouse.

Another method of input that is often overlooked because of its spotty history is audio input — talking to your computer. Early experimenters worked hard to train their computers to understand a limited vocabulary from a single individual. The rewards seldom were worth the effort, but today anyone can navigate to the accessibility section of Windows and quickly enable speech recognition that works quite well. At this time, I can still type somewhat faster than dictating to my computer, but as my hand/eye coordination deteriorates, I will likely switch exclusively to dictation for writing things like this post. Stephen Hawking I am not, but speech synthesis and recognition look more interesting as they improve.

Audio input and output might not completely replace the alternatives, but neither qwerty nor a mouse with clicks will always be with us. Methods of communicating with computers are changing. Touchpads might just be a step along the way. How long will it be before we all use direct hookups of various types? Two years ago we saw a Christmas gift game where balls were levitated by users controlling brain waves. Members of our family took turns putting on a hand band and attempting to make a ball jump over obstacles. More practically, I have seen a video of a man piloting a sailboat using only thoughts to operate controls. These are certainly the first stirrings of what will likely become mainstream technology in the near future. The only question is how “near” is near? Check out the XWave. It is one of many new offerings.

Then we might consider going the next step toward science fiction: electronic implants. Already my dog has a chip embedded under his skin. While this is only for ID, it could be used for other purposes. With some mild improvements, the same technology could be used to control electronic equipment. In 2009, Intel said we would have the technology to control computers with only brain waves by 2020. By 2011, things had advanced in other directions, which indicates active experimentation. The difference between these two articles in only two years gives an idea of the rapid development of this exciting field. They are only a sampling of many fascinating advances you can find with a simple search. Which technique will win and when? I have no idea, but my dog has a chip, and most likely you will, too — but yours will be more powerful (and more expensive!).

All this is a long way from addressing the issues of aging or palsy. If the vast majority adopts electronic implants for convenience, those who suffer from less than normal physical abilities will benefit also. The difference between the physically gifted and the handicapped will probably decrease, just as the deployment of the six-gun in the old West tended to equalize the fighting ability of those who previously depended on their ability to wield a Bowie knife. An interesting question is: What will be the societal impact of these changes?