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Student Assists Man with Cerebral Palsy

Designs a Special Computer Keyboard

Victor Piper, left, with Yeth John Kong.

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Yeth John Kong loves to write poetry. But for this middle-aged, wheelchair-bound Tyngsboro man, typing even a few words or phrases on his computer keyboard is a slow, arduous process. Kong has cerebral palsy, a non-progressive brain disorder caused by damage to the cerebrum (and/or other parts of the brain) around the time of birth and is characterized by impaired muscle control, particularly in the arms and legs. There is no known cure for this condition.

Earlier this year, Victor Piper, then an undergraduate student at UMass Lowell’s Electrical Engineering Department, was at the Community Center for Life Links in Lowell when he was introduced to Kong. Piper was touring the center to find a class project for the department’s Assistive Technology Program, which encourages people with physical disabilities to contact the staff with requests for technological solutions to improve their daily lives. Kong told Piper he needed help to improve his speed in inputting text in his computer.

Piper sprang into action. He conducted a survey of commercial solutions already on the market, but found them unsuitable for Kong’s specific need. “Yeth needed a way to enter text more rapidly,” he says. “I decided to seek an approach that would combine hardware and software.”

After settling on a hardware design, Piper then searched the Internet for software ideas, focusing specifically on “predictive-text” technology. He contacted several companies to ask for their help in the project.

Zi Corp., a global provider of intelligent interface solutions based in Calgary, was the first to respond. Piper found its eZiText one-touch predictive-text software to be the most suitable for the project as it is compatible with interfaces with reduced keys, such as mobile phones, and the company agreed to license the product to him.

“Every step of the way, I was impressed with the Zi Corporation team,” he says. “They were instrumental in the success of Yeth’s project.”

Following a semester of development and trials, Piper came up with TapMe, a specially designed, touch-screen-style keyboard that features fewer, larger keys (without omitting any characters or symbols) and eZiText-enabled driver software. “With this device, Yeth will be able to generate words with fewer keystrokes,” says Piper, who now works at Raytheon.

The entire project had cost him less than $100. “Half of that was to replace a controller board that I fried by miswiring the power input terminals,” he says. “The University bought the original unit.”

Last summer Piper delivered the finished product to Kong, who was thrilled. “Yeth is a man of few words,” he says, “but the happiness on his face speaks volumes.”

He adds: “The Assistive Technology Program at UMass Lowell is extremely valuable to both the students and the community. It’s great to know that I’ve made a difference in Yeth’s life with this device. I really enjoyed working on this project.”

A close-up view of TapMe, a keyboard that Piper specially designed and created for Kong.