Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alternative to Typing: Dasher Software Essential for Some, Addictive Fun For Others

Now for something completely different...
I came across a truly unique, free, open-source piece of AT software called Dasher. It is an alternative input method for Windows, whereby a user can "type" without using any kind of keyboard (physical or on-screen). It works by stacking the alphabet on one side of your screen and letting you steer and drive into the letters and words you want.  The action is similar to some video games, but there are no spaceships or bad guys. You can use a mouse, an eye-tracker, or other devices. Primarily designed for people who don't have full use of 10 fingers for typing, it can be a fairly efficient means of inputting text thanks to its built-in word prediction. According to the website, "Tests have shown that, after an hour of practice, novice users reach a writing speed of about 20 words per minute while taking dictation. Experienced users achieve writing speeds of about 34 words per minute, compared with typical ten-finger keyboard typing of 40-60 words per minute."

It's going to be very difficult to give you a sense of how it works without a video demonstration, so here's a screencast I made that demonstrates how to use Dasher and adjust some of the many settings. Be sure to check out the Dasher website for tips on getting started. It will feel a bit awkward to use at first, but once you get past that, it is actually pretty fun. I found it addictive, to tell you the truth! That's why I think it's also a great way to get a kid who may be physically able to type or write but is very reluctant to write or has high anxiety around the act of writing to start stringing letters together. 

There's even a special version of this software called Speech Dasher. It works with speech-recognition software by Microsoft or Dragon NaturallySpeaking; you dictate and use Speech Dasher as an interface to select and correct words based on your dictation. 

I love Dasher. I think it's brilliant. But I do have some wishes to improve it. A simple one is to make the text-to-speech function say each letter rather than only say each word or a string of words. My other wish is to make a version that is graphically like a modern video-game. Make it more like a 3-D driving or flying game that will engage kids more.

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