Some months back, a classmate of mine at IIMA, Rashmi Bansal had visited us. She asked Jaya to contact Prof. Prabhat Ranjan from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT) who she said may be able to help me. (Rashmi has the whole story here.) Accordingly, Jaya contacted Prof.Ranjan, told him about my difficulties and also gave him the address of my blog so that he got more pointers about my needs. He thought that I would benefit by using a brain-computer-interface. (There was a story in ToI regarding this. And yes, the Karat guy is me.)
He then sent a couple of his engineers, Ajay Roshania and Hiren Shah, to help train me in using the device. They were accompanied by a s/w engineer from a Coimbatore based company, Mr. Vickneswaran. Since the initial training, they have been immensely helpful in sorting out various small issues that kept cropping up from time to time as I learnt various nuances about how to use the device. One particularly helpful feature has been increasing the size of the keys on the on-screen key board. This has ensured that a certain amount of shake can be tolerated. Before using this device, I had not realised that my head shook so much. (It is as if my head rests on a moderately stiff spring.)
The s/w could be installed only on the laptop. For some reason, it could not be installed on the desktop. This proved advantageous for me because I could use the battery back-up in the laptop to type when there was no current.(The load-shedding here is about - hold your breath - 8 hours.) An inverter has been fitted for the computers so this no longer is a problem. I now have the problem of deciding whether and when to switch off the computer to read a book. Believe me, you can always find a reason to crib if you try hard enough. (From the day the inverter was installed, load shedding has reduced. Just saying.)
I had fun showing off my magic skills to visitors - the cursor moving around on the monitor of its own accord, letters appearing out of nowhere...I was like a kid showing off his new bicycle to his mother - 'Look ma, no hands!' Fortunately, there have been only 2-3 visitors at a time. (If you recall, I am not at my best in front of large audiences.)
Even small audiences are a problem. This is because, when people are around, I tend to get excited and laugh which makes the cursor go all over the screen. If I am alone, I concentrate only on the screen, there is no distraction from any quarter and my typing speed increases considerably. So there is a paradox -if people are around, my typing is laborious; if I am alone, my typing is much better. In other words, if you watch me typing, you will get tired.
Another reason why I prefer using the device when I am alone is that I use eye blinks for all communication. When I blink in response to someone's queries, the computer might register my blinks and click whichever icon the mouse-pointer happens to be in. When I turn back to the monitor, something would have happened that I wouldn't have wanted. There are other options in the s/w for mouse-clicks like smile, clench teeth etc. I can use only blinks because I don't have voluntary control over the other expressions.
Some days I type well. On some days, my head seems to shake a bit more, I get a bit more cough or my blinks don't seem to work properly. I notice them when I use the headset, otherwise I would have not been aware of them.
I only use the device when Jaya is at home because there is a 15-20 min procedure in the beginning before I get control of the mouse.I have also to call her occasionally to get me out of some mess that I had created. The physiotherapist comes in the evening when generally most guests also come, thus the preferable time for using the device is in the mornings. I generally don't use the device when Sujit comes back from school because he will be more interested in what I am doing than on his studies. (This is not a factor for another month or so because it is his vacations.) I now sometimes sit in the afternoons also even though Jaya will be asleep because Sujit will be able to pull me out of any hole I find myself in. He rarely sleeps in the afternoons. (That only happens when he has an exam the next day.)
When using the headset I am mercifully free of the tyranny of mobile phones. They may have their uses but I hate them. Whenever I want to type something in the computer, the nurse will get a phone call and for the next 10 minutes, I will be admiring the screen saver and thinking of some song.It is amazing how often Jaya or the nurse gets one of those interminable phone calls. It is a wonder that I have not burst a blood vessel yet.
Another advantage of the device is that I am now occupied when the nurse is on leave. Previously during these times, since Jaya will have a hundred different things to do, I try to avoid asking her to be my typist also. Now, she just has to spend a few minutes in the beginning to activate the device and leave me alone for the next couple of hours. I can work for only a couple of hours at a stretch before my neck muscles get tired because of constant movement and my blinks become a bit erratic.
I have told you about two methods that I use to type my posts. Now I also have this device. My typing speed has been increasing with practice. I suppose it will be optimum when I lose my initial excitement at being able to type and the device becomes like just another pair of reading glasses. Of course, no device will be able to reach the speed with which I dictate to Jaya. This is because, when dictating to Jaya, I often resort to the Adrian Boult principle. In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins explains the principle:
Once,in rehearsal, Sir Adrian turned to the violas and told them to play out more.‘But Sir Adrian’, protested the principal viola, ‘you were indicating less and less with your baton’. ‘The idea’, retorted the maestro, ‘is that I should do less and less, and you should do more and more!’For eg., I might dictate a couple of letters and Jaya might guess the whole word or she might guess a large part of the next sentence depending on the context. Sometimes I may indicate a word by moving the head or by looking in some direction. Jaya will be able to guess the word because of years of practice interpreting my dumb charades. Humans are good at using theory of mind which machines cannot, at least not to the same extent.
I am sometimes asked why I don't indulge in other activities like travelling or participating in various fora. The answer is simple - it is a question of opportunity cost. Whatever method of communication I use, it will be slower than what any normal person can manage. Thus any time I spend on other activities means that I get a correspondingly less time for reading and blogging which I enjoy. When my interest in blogging starts waning, I will move on to something else.
So I now have 3 methods by which I can keep wasting your time. I will be using a mix of the methods to type the posts depending on the convenience at any point of time. I have thought of some splendid things to write about in the next few weeks. (Really! I am not joking!) So now, apart from Jaya and the nurse, you also have Rashmi and Prof. Prabhat Ranjan to crib about. Good luck!