Monday, April 30, 2012

I can type!

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!


  1. Well done, Kesu and Jaya! If possible, post a video of a typical 1-2 min session and we will be able to relate to the things you have said here (a roundabout way of saying - spare us the verbal torture and simply show us the visuals:-)).

  2. You can see his first trials at:

    I am uploading the new videos soon, where he is able to use the system at much faster rate now.

  3. I have uploaded all the video now at :

  4. MINDBLOWING!!Congrats to the two of you and a military salute to the men responsible for bringing about this metamorphosis!!And of course to that thoughtful classmate.Very humbling indeed!!I am happy for both of you and kudos to your optimism and resilience!!!Don't ever get bored of blogging...:):)

  5. Dear Kesu and Jaya,

    Congrats to both of you! Saw the you tube really looks like magic! Hats off to your strength and resilience. I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    PS: Belated happy birthday to Kesu!

  6. Congrats Professor Ranjan and K suresh, Your story is very inspiring and I hope that soon, we can work towards reducing the irritation caused by the continuous blink of the eyes.

    When you have time see this film by a french painter,


  7. Thanks for the videos, Prof Ranjan.

  8. Wonderful to see all the progress. Hats off to Prof. Ranjan and the three intrepid engineers, Ajay, Hiren and Vickneswaran...

  9. Hello Professor Ranjan
    It is so heartwarming to hear about your incredible and brave journey.

    My mother suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and is also rapidly becoming "locked in". Like you, she has not allowed the condition to destroy her spirit and her zest for life and is keen to push herself to do as much as her disability will allow.

    I have been researching options to help her communicate - and was looking at eyegaze and headmouse as two options, when I came upon the EPOC headgear. While it seems like the perfect solution, given her severely limited mobility and the complexity of using systems like eyegaze, the developers at EMOTIV were unable to clarify for me whether I could successfully use EPOC in combination with an onscreen, hands-free keyboard, and who would be responsible for programming the device for the same.

    It seems that you have arrived at such a solution and that you are using it very successfully and I might say, prolifically.

    Can you let me know where I can get more information about the interface - again, I am looking specifically for the people who worked with the developer kit of the EPOC and got it to work with your trusty laptop.

    Thanks very much and keep shining

  10. My mistake, Mr Karat, I addressed you as Professor Ranjan, sorry about that.

    Can you please let me know how to contact you? I'd like to order an EMOTIV system to help my mum type and communicate, as you do and am a little confused about which setup to choose.

    I spent some time reading through your blog and will be recommending it to my mum, who is an equally curious soul and will definitely be emboldened by the range of your interests and your prolific posting.


  11. Hi Amitabh my wife also has MND and is in a similar condition. I am now evaluating the possibility of her utilising the EPOCH headset. Did you make any progress with helping your mother? Suresh do you have any additional feedback on your use if the headset? Your blog is excellent!

    1. Hi Finemess,
      I had written an update
      Hope your wife will find EPOC helpful.

  12. Hello sir, I am Ajay Balachandran from ottapalam so happy to read about you...
    After an accident in 2008 i'm at the state of quadriplegia but since my speech is saved, I work on my laptop with the help of windows speech recognition. When I go through the your words on this post, I am finding much similar life experiences you have shared, especially
    > When I show the way I work to my friends and visitors.
    > "Jaya(my mom's name) 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 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."

    Thank you so much for your time and efforts to share your life and experiences and thanking Jaya madam for giving me this link.
    This is my blog, so happy and excited to present it before you