RALEIGH, N.C. – Victor Pauca will have plenty of presents to unwrap on Christmas, but the 5-year-old Winston-Salem boy has already received the best gift he'll get this year: the ability to communicate.
Victor has a rare genetic disorder that delays development of a number of skills, including speech. To help him and others with disabilities, his father, Paul, and some of his students at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem have created an application for the iPhone and iPad that turns their touch screens into communications tools.
The VerbalVictor app allows parents and caregivers to take pictures and record phrases to go with them. These become "buttons" on the screen that Victor touches when he wants to communicate. A picture of the backyard, for example, can be accompanied by a recording of a sentence like "I want to go outside and play." When Victor touches it, his parents or teachers know what he wants to do.
"The user records the voice, so it's something the child's familiar with. It's not robotic," Paul Pauca said.
The app, which should be for sale for $10 in Apple Inc.'s iTunes store by early next week, is one of dozens of new software products designed to make life easier for people with a range of disabilities.
The category is expanding so fast that Apple now has a separate listing for it in the App Store. More apps are added every week, ranging from Sign4Me, a sign language tutor that uses an animated avatar, to ArtikPix, a flash card-like app that helps teachers and speech therapists improve their students' articulation of words.
"It opens up his mind to us, because he can show us what he's thinking," said Victor's mother, Theresa.
Victor has a rare genetic disorder called Pitt Hopkins Syndrome, a diagnosis he shares with about 50 other people in the U.S. The ailment causes delays in cognitive abilities, motor skills, social development and language skills. Victor's progress, in many ways, has been good — he could walk at age 2, whereas some children with the condition can't walk until they're 10 or older.
The Paucas tried a number of therapeutic devices designed to help people with similar disabilities communicate. These standalone devices are often low-tech — the one the Paucas first tried required paper printouts. Or they are expensive: a top-of-the-line model similar to the one used by famed physicist Stephen Hawking can cost about $8,200.
Paul Pauca, a computer science professor, decided that he and some of his students could do better. Starting in January, they worked to create an app that would use the versatility of the Apple devices to make communication easier.
Because the hardware already existed, and the work was done as part of a class, there were essentially no direct costs of development. The prototype was done by late spring.
"We're not a big-budget operation, and that allows us to sell it for $10," said Tommy Guy, who is one of Pauca's students and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.
Jim Tobias, president of consulting firm Inclusive Technologies and an expert on disability-accessible technology, points out that VerbalVictor takes advantage of general-purpose, mass-market gadgets that cost hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.
People who already own an iPhone or iPad need to pay only $10 more for the app, "instead of taking a risk with $1,000" with specialized machines, said Tobias, who is not involved with the project.
There are dozens of apps designed to help people with a variety of disabilities, ranging from sign language aids to apps that play back text on the screen in a clear voice to help visually impaired people navigate their phones.
The apps also offer a rich experience with bright colors, high-definition photos and crisp sound recordings that weren't possible before mobile computing technology, Tobias said. But a potential downside exists when people start to think of the apps as a magic wand. Not every app will help every person, he said.
"I've been contacted by about 100 eager and enthusiastic parents in the last three or four months about things like this," he said, "and if it doesn't work out, they're a little bit at a loss as to what to do next. We still need to do more to help professionals understand what's available and what might be best suited for individuals."
For the Paucas, who founded the Pitt Hopkins Syndrome International Network to meet and share information with other families, something as seemingly commonplace as a smart phone app has added inexpressible richness to their family life.
"He has the most positive attitude and the brightest smile," Theresa said about Victor. "He teaches us something new every day about what we need to be thankful for."