How Surface Pro + Xbox One helped a paralysed man to do more

Most of us take for granted all of the wonderful technologies that surround us, complaining when things aren't 'just so', or getting utterly exasperated at usability nightmares like how inconveniently a button is placed on the screen. But for some, using technology can be a genuinely excruciating experience, and even an exclusive one, with devices designed for the many often neglecting the needs of the few. 

But just as technology can raise barriers that prevent some from accessing and using it, it can also smash barriers down to help make life that little bit easier. 

In 2012, for example, we reported on a man who had used Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor to create a simple interface that his mother could use to write emails, after a severe stroke left her suffering with aphasia. Last year, we covered another innovation, in which simple Kinect-based games were being used to help stroke survivors in their recovery and rehabilitation, after losing some of their mobility. 

Today, we share with you another example of how widely-available technology can be used to make life easier for those who need it most. Two years ago, 29-year-old Tyler Schrenk was in a diving accident, which left him paralysed from the neck down. Unable to use his hands, simple tasks like reading or switching on the TV became far greater challenges. Tools were available to help him read e-books or open his emails, but it would often take several minutes even to perform these tasks. 

But things changed when Schrenk met Jose Blakeley, a Microsoft software engineer, through his church. Blakeley introduced him to the original Surface Pro, including Windows 8's speech recognition software, along with a voice-operated mouse and various other features to help Schrenk to interact with the system without needing to touch it.

It didn't take long for Schrenk to get the hang of things, but it did need some improvements and customisations before it worked properly - his respirator, pump and air conditioner all generated such noise that they created interference with his voice interactions. But the two men came up with a solution, and Blakeley attached the Surface Pro to Schrenk's wheelchair, along with a Koss C100 microphone connected to the tablet, to help pick up his voice commands. 

After that, it was all smooth sailing. "I can do a lot more of the things that I used to do before," Schrenk says. "I can handle more of my own stuff." From reading e-books and working in Microsoft Office, to browsing and searching the web, the set-up has given him far more freedom to stay connected and to engage with the digital world. "If nothing else, the Surface opened my eyes," he added, "and I realised the possibility of doing much more than just occasionally checking my email." 

Beyond just the Surface, Schrenk has since purchased an Xbox One, and with its Kinect voice control integration, he can now watch television shows and movies with ease. "It's cool," he says. "I was able to use it out-of-the-box without any upgrades." 

Since forming his friendship with Blakeley and being introduced to the Surface Pro and Kinect on the Xbox One, Schrenk has now enrolled in computer science classes, and hopes to eventually find employment as a programmer. "I just don't want to have my injury stop me from achieving my dreams and aspirations," he said, "and technology is giving me a way to continue on with my life." 

Source: Microsoft | images via Microsoft

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17 Comments

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I am paralysed similar to that guy after a diving accident 23 years ago, but I can use my arms although my hands are paralysed I can use a mouse. Spent many years speech operated computers and voice typing.

Firstly, speech software on Windows since it was included with Vista it hasn't improved or at least I haven't noticed and I tried every version (any increase accuracy we jump ship). I cannot imagine any rehab centre recommending Microsoft speech software, there is substantially better on the market around $200 that wouldn't need as an expensive microphone.

Here is my big question, having only broke his neck two years ago and speech software is so readily available on everything even your smart phone what were his occupational therapist playing at not helping to sort him out before?

I got rid of my surface because you could not dictate directly via the keyboard and the microphone is simply horrendous you would need to spend a small fortune just have some accuracy. Hence this is exactly what they did. Granted I'm using a Blue Yeti but it is not horrendously dear. I realise he couldn't press the mouse or a key so having a button on the keyboard is not the answer for him but all the other systems can be activated by voice.

They make a point of the noise from the breathing ventilator to justify upgraded the microphone , although that would make a difference I can dictate on the iPad and android using built in mic with TV on although not very loud but watchable.

Controlling Windows is horrible with with Microsoft voice software, this can also be done via NaturallySpeaking.

To be honest I feel sorry for this guy slightly because there is so much better out there. Although this might make Microsoft catch up.

Ironically Windows 8 is a nightmare for speech control.

The Xbox is brilliant, cannot fault that one bit. Although the Xbox 360 and Kinect is perfectly capable of this. I was doing it about an hour ago to annoy my daughter!

Look at YouTube videos for Microsoft speech recognition!

PS I've been around here long enough for you to trust me when I say I don't work for Nuance.

Edited by stevember, Jul 2 2014, 5:40pm :

Apple is actually doing more to help people with limited eye sight with its awesome accessibility in its ecosystem, where there is still room for Microsoft to improve. But without the kinect, enabling such a seriously disabled person is a harder task for Apple than for Microsoft.

And this is why I love Kinect. There's so much better potential use for it outside of gaming.

Glad it could help enable someone. :)

Haaa-Choo said,
God + church + paralysed man + helpful MS employee + surface pro/xbox and giant Tv = PR payday for MS

Yeah, lets not ever bring these sort of stories to light; Microsoft can't be made to look good no matter what.

Oh, wait, I thought for a second I was on Slashdot.