In June 2010, after 40 years of teaching classical Indian music, Nirmala Godhwani lost her ability to speak. Four months earlier she’d been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and while Godhwani’s mind remained sharp, her motor skills deteriorated quickly. She grew frustrated trying out the various technologies for converting typed words into speech. Most have interfaces that rely heavily on graphics, including stick figures, to help users of all ages, literacy levels, and mental capacities recognize words. The graphics slowed Nirmala down, however, and made it difficult for her to form complex sentences. Before long, her hope that she could continue having substantive conversations “had been beaten out of her by this brutal disease,” says Ajay Godhwani, Nirmala’s nephew.
Then a 35-year-old senior director at a technology consulting company, Godhwani decided, along with Nirmala’s two sons, to create something better. The result, an iPad app called Verbally, is a lesson in economy. Godhwani consulted with speech therapists and computational linguists and was surprised to learn that only “about 200 words in the English language make up about 80 percent of daily conversations,” he says. So rather than stick figures, Verbally users see text buttons on the top half of the screen and a keyboard on the bottom. One tab shows about 50 of the most common words in English; another, a list of common phrases. Users can choose one of the text buttons or start typing. The app employs predictive text technology to recommend complete words and phrases based on the first few letters typed. The idea is to squeeze more information on each screen and reduce the number of steps it takes to form a sentence.
Godhwani says his aunt, who died this February, found it far easier to communicate complex thoughts with the app. In March, Intuary—the San Francisco startup Godhwani founded to develop the technology—released a polished version as a free iPad app. It’s been downloaded nearly 30,000 times. In late July, the six-person company started selling a $100 premium version with more voice options and the ability to store personalized lists of words and phrases. Andrew Jinks, a speech pathologist with the Center for Assistive Technology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says Verbally is “tremendous” for a free product, though it’s not appropriate for every patient. “It’s certainly not going to work for them over the course of” a degenerative disease such as ALS, he says, as patients eventually lose the ability to manipulate a touchscreen.
Intuary, meanwhile, is expanding, and plans to release an educational app for children by the end of the year. Godhwani won’t give any details other than to say he wants the program to be as easy to use as Verbally, so just by “look[ing] at it, you know what to do.”