The Story of How I Developed Apps for the Speech Impaired

It started out with bad news in an email.

Dan C. is one of my best friends. He had to go into the hospital to remove a large growth from his leg. We went to lunch before hand, and I reassured him everything would be fine. I expected him to contact me, time went by, no contact from Dan . . . then I got an email from his girlfriend saying, “Dan is not doing well”.

I found out from her that he had been moved from Oakland to a hospital facility in Vallejo, CA. I drove to visit him, and when I entered the hospital room, Dan recognized me, but was unable to speak. He had suffered a pulmonary embolism, while walking across the lawn to leave the hospital. A blood clot broke loose, traveled to his lungs, and his heart stopped, he collapsed on the grass. They worked on him continuously, and were able to revive him.

Considering what happened, Dan was lucky to be alive. His frustration and mine were both obvious, we couldn’t communicate and had never had much trouble talking before, in fact the opposite, being not able to shut-up was our problem! I found a laminated conversation board in the hospital room with the alphabet on it, and the words yes, and no.

He tediously began to spell out his answers in our conversation pointing his finger to each letter. Dan was having trouble with his manual dexterity, he was still very weak. I realized quickly, that this way of communicating wasn’t going to do! I started thinking, Dan and I had always shared a big interest in computers, networking, IT, etc. In fact we both worked as programmers at DMV together in Sacramento, where I met him and he later got me my first job interview in San Francisco. I helped him name his first small business, LANTEC, and we designed his website together.

The Apple iPad had just been released a few months earlier, and I was trying hard to think of an app to write for it. Then, I thought about Stephen Hawking, and how he had a computer voice which could talk for him, it was part of his wheelchair. I thought the iPad might be powerful enough and just be able to do it. So I got really busy; I would write an app that talked for my friend Dan!

A good musician friend of mine, Eric DiSilva loaned me some digitizing software and with a little HTML and Javascript code, I loaned my own recorded .mp3 voice to a web-page based proto-type app I put up on my website. The problem was, I didn’t initially own an iPad ($500 in 2010), and I had to take repeated visits to the Apple Store to test and debug the software in Safari. Eventually, it was ready, and Dan’s sister had an iPad, so we tested it in his hospital room. The app had more problems, the hospital network wasn’t available and the download of the .mp3 files was tediously slow over broadband, causing the app to speak very haltingly. Back to the drawing board . . . I was going to have to call in more resources and time to make it work better.

Enter Frank Weiss, a new friend and software engineer I had just met at a bus stop on my way to work, he thought the idea for the app was a good one, and had some potential. We discussed coding it up in Objective C for the iPad, adding in a embedded speech engine, so it didn’t need to access the internet or wi-fi to talk.

Frank did the coding, I did the interface design this time, we collaborated very well together, both of us balancing busy day jobs. I search high and low on the web and located an open source speech engine developed in C on 1990’s mini-computers, via email to an Italian developer in Italy. Frank hooked up the new speech engine code to our new interface code and when we first tested it, it spoke English with an Italian Accent! So we adjusted some things and were ready for another test with Dan.

The second test with Dan was a success, his strength was returning, and at times his voice was somewhat understandable. When it wasn’t, the app helped a lot. Frank had never met Dan before, but was able to communicate with him as well. I took notes: Frank and I discussed ideas for improvements to the app, mainly to manage Dan’s manual dexterity issues. That’s how Touch Voicewas born and became “The Medical Speaking App”. Now we are in hospitals, convalescent care facilities, and homes.

Later I would buy out Frank, we still remain good friends today. His career has advanced to a Solution Architect position at Gap, a testament to his excellent technical skills, in addition to what I know to be his compassion for humanity. I have continued as CEO and founder of Touch Voice and have a three product line of speech apps to date, which run on diverse computer systems. The Touch Voice apps address such wide and varied medical issues as Stroke, ALS, Traumatic Brain Injury, Brain Tumor, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Ataxia, Dysarthria, Laryngeal Cancer and potentially others.

Today Dan has regained much of his speech, we speak over the phone, and he is now living in Davenport, Iowa near his family. In developing the app, I never took any investment money from VC or Angels, I did it all on my shoestring personal budget, paid for advertising and everything else, which was really very challenging. Other friends and family not named here helped me along the way, some testing, others with app ideas, professional marketing advice, encouragement, you know who you are, thank you all so very much, you are generously kind.

The challenge of producing an app for the speech impaired has taught me many things. I have found that hands and fingers may be too shaky or weak to touch the smaller buttons on smart phones which speak words, so larger tablets with big buttons are always better for this. In other cases, cognitive damage to word recognition in the brain makes it difficult to communicate, so I have included images with words to assist those individuals. In some ways I believe I possibly have created one of the best AAC apps on the planet!

Michael McAnally, is a Founder, Futurist, Entrepreneur and Science Fiction Blogger who goes by the pen name Michael Blade. He has deep professional knowledge in computer science and currently lives in San Francisco as CEO-Dev of Touch Voice and owns a Website Design & Development business at WEBMAC.com He has apps in all the major app stores which help thousands of speech impaired individuals and are used in hospitals and care facilities around the globe.