If you have no idea what the term AAC means, you aren’t alone. AAC is not in the mainstream consciousness of most people even though it should be. AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. This means people use ways other than speech to communicate.
AAC has been around for centuries in one form or another, like gestures and sign language, but modern AAC has developed over the past one hundred years or so. AAC as a physical device came about around one hundred years when the first communication board was created. Over the subsequent decades, different methods were developed to allow people to communicate either with assistance (aided) or on their own (unaided). The electronic AAC device evolved starting in the 1960s and in the past ten years has really come into its own.
The Current State of AAC
There are dozens if not hundreds of options for AAC these days. You can use the traditional AAC style boards or go with a myriad of electronic or computer-based programs. In fact, you can run AAC right on your iPhone or iPad. With the advent of the internet, communicating in different ways has become easier but still not ideal for everyone.
Challenges with AAC have been multi-faceted: supporting sufficient vocabulary, effective access with or without support, physical adaptations, learning curves, and social and cultural acceptance.
AAC of the Now and Future
One of the challenges of AAC for many is the fact that you need to carry a board or a tablet or computing device and touch it, use electronic switches, or eye tracking from a distance. This works well but can be problematic for some people or in some situations. Say you are walking and carrying things but need to speak using your iPad. Or you have a motor disability and require a wheelchair and using a tablet with keyguard, but access can be slow and frustrating.
There is a new wave of computing that is using BCI—brain computer interface—to give more people access to computer control to speed up and enhance communication. AAC is taking advantage of this in creative ways.
One up-and-coming company is Cognixion. They have created an augmented reality (AR) headset that includes BCI via EEG (electroencephalography) sensors. The Cognixion One uses custom EEG sensors along with an AR visor to display the AAC application to the user hands-free.
AR projects 2D or 3D imagery in front of the eyes as a heads up display so the user can see both the information and their surroundings at the same time.
EEG uses electrodes on the outside of the head to sense electrical brain activity. These have traditionally been used for neurological evaluations in the medical field. Over the past few decades, researchers have studied the use of EEG to control computers—brain computer interface. This turns the brain into a switch of sorts, giving the ability to control a computing device without a keyboard or mouse. Once the brain is trained, it can work like a hands-free keyboard and mouse.
This focuses on two of the challenges of traditional AAC: carrying an device and physical access. They are also rethinking the user experience of AAC in the headset.
My son and wife got to try the Cognixion One. My son, who has cerebral palsy, communicates with minimal speech and relies on sign language, gestures, and an iPad with the program Proloquo2Go. Using something like the Cognixion One could open up more options for him to connect with others.
Imagine the Possibilities
This raises the question I’ve been asking myself for a while: how do people with disabilities engage in XR (extended reality—augmented and virtual reality) and the newfangled metaverse? While many of the common AAC methods could work in AR, not many or really any have been adapted to the medium. This needs to happen and needs to happen now.
What if everyone was able to communicate with each other seamlessly? That is no longer a pipe dream. We have the technology. We have the willingness. We even have some of the social and cultural support. We just need it all to come together. I feel this will happen in the coming years and decades, if not sooner.