The newly updated ChatAble 1.3 is now available from Therapy Box! I received a review copy of this AAC app, which offers communication through symbol-based grids as well as visual scene displays. Initially, I was quite taken with the combination of features provided (especially the Write Pad — more on that later!) and my mind ran away with the possibilities for using scenes and grids together. The timing of this review (end of school year) made it difficult for me to find many opportunities to use the app with kids or in classrooms, but afforded me ample time to explore, create, and play in the app. After using the app for a bit, I have dialed back my expectations for incorporating hotspots into my own photos and scenes, and created a bit of a wish list for future updates!

A hotspot-embedded scene from ChatAble 1.3

A hotspot-embedded scene from ChatAble 1.3

THE WHAT: The features of ChatAble 1.3 are stellar, catering to several modes of nonverbal input, and showing creativity and innovation on the part of the developers. AAC apps for the iPad should be intuitive, easy to use and customize, and allow users to take full advantage of the internet and of their own photo and media libraries, and ChatAble 1.3 makes serious efforts towards all of these ends. ChatAble 1.3 allows communication using symbol-based grids, visual scene displays with embedded hotspots (think photos or drawings with embedded ‘buttons’), and pages with combined visual scenes and grid components (e.g. a hotspot-embedded scene with additional vocabulary or links to other pages below). Hotspots in the scenes can be associated with speech output or link to another page or to audio/visual media. Some really neat extras include the ability to set an alarm so that a message comes up taking you to a specific page at a set time, and being able to set a GPS location for a scene, so that the page is brought up automatically when the user is in the right location.

The Keyboard function is pretty straightforward, allowing users to type a message which is spoken when the message window is tapped. I read in the downloadable User Guide about the ability to customize the placement of individual keys, but I crashed the app once while trying to figure out how to do it, and even when I followed the directions exactly, I never got it to work.

The WritePad feature from ChatAble 1.3

The WritePad feature from ChatAble 1.3

As I mentioned above, I love the WritePad feature! In this mode, you have a yellow pad on which you can write with your finger or stylus. The app interprets your writing, giving you additional options if it does not guess accurately, and eventually speaking your words. Great for short messages or closing a feedback loop for written language – “I can hear what I wrote!”

The quirky corner menu for editing and settings that ties the rest of the pages together doesn’t seem to fit as well on these alternate screens, in fact it is not even there for WritePad. Instead the user has a Back button in the upper left. The inconsistency makes it feel like this feature doesn’t quite belong with the rest of the app.

Editing buttons in the bottom right of the screen

Editing buttons in the bottom right of the screen

The feature that I most missed when exploring this app is the ability to lock the app down and limit editing by the user. There are lots of instances where it is great for the user to have easy access to editing. However, in working with young people with ASD in an educational environment, it is often desirable to be able to password protect or otherwise restrict access to settings and editing. When this is not built in to an app, I have sometimes been successful using the Guided Access optionto restrict access to certain areas of the screen (i.e. where the Edit button is!), but I think that even if I left the navigation button accessible and created a guided access region that covered only the Edit and Settings buttons in the lower right corner, functionality of some pages might be impacted.

The HOW: I’ve separated my thoughts on features and design from those on functionality because, although I love some of the features, they just don’t work as smoothly as I’d like them to. The real test of the functionality of an app like this is in creating your own grids, scenes, and pictures. As I was most excited about creating hotspots in my own pictures and visual scenes, I was most disappointed that this feature just doesn’t seem ready for prime time. I’ll describe my experience below, but the slow reaction times and the lag between actions make this an unsatisfying way to express yourself and inappropriate for true conversation. ;

Having used other similar communication apps, I felt confident creating a variety of pages, and even customizing appearances and linking different forms of media. Though it may not have been necessary, I did read through the basic, but readable User’s Guide, finding additional information on the Search function (It’s in the Toggle menu!) and the GPS/alarm functions. I had the options and actions I expected to have in creating the pages I had in mind. Using my own pictures for grids and visual scenes was very straightforward, as was adding hotspots to a scene, and using images from the internet (you just have to save them to My Photos from outside the app… Would be cool to be able to do that from within the app, but the app’s Symbol Library is pretty thorough).

The frustrations I had were largely related to response times within the app. I should preface this all by saying that I installed the app on my old-school 64 GB iPad 2, running iOS 7.1.2, with 15 GB of available space. Not the newest hardware, but also still widely used in education. So, I’m used to things running slowly, but when I started the app, it took 10 seconds of a blank white screen before the logo began to appear, and then an additional 15 seconds before the home grid came up. If I had a student who used his iPad for other things, but wanted to be able to bring up the communication app when he needed it, this would not work. 25 seconds is interminable when you are waiting to say something. Once it was running, it usually came up as quickly as any other app, but even this was not consistently reliable. Sometimes (maybe after some period of not being used? maybe it crashed while I was doing other things?) it started back with the 25 second white screen process, even though I thought it would be already running. Because this was a review copy, I didn’t have the option to install it on a newer iPad, so I can’t speak to how it might perform on a newer machine.

This wait time was also evident as I was working within the app. The hotspots were simple to create in my photos or visuals I found online, and I easily added text for the app to read or recorded my own audio. But there is an uncomfortable lag (1-3 seconds?) between touching a hotspot in a visual scene and hearing the message, whether the message uses the app’s voice or is a recorded message. I created a hybrid page (visual scene with grid buttons below) where one of the grid buttons was a link to another grid page. Though the audio label plays right away when I use that button, it takes a full 9 seconds for the linked page to open. The response time for hearing the message is much quicker when working within the grids, but even then if you touch a second cell too quickly after the first, the audio for the second does not play at all, though it will show up in the message window, so it could be played all together by tapping the window.

The BROAD VIEW: Overall, I love the ideas in this app. It’s probably most appropriate at this time for communicators working at the level of single words or just beginning to combine words. When using AAC apps like ChatAble on the iPad, my own clinical focus is school-age students with communication disorders including autism, with a range of verbal abilities. I love the collection of features because there are so many options that appeal to my students. Accessibility features like switch access and ‘touch anywhere’ scanning are easy to use. Visual scenes with hotspots provide context to abstract vocabulary and give structure for practice and more consistent use. Options for alarms and GPS triggers provide opportunities to fade cues and increase independence for users. The keyboard and WritePad provide for exploration, creativity, and play turning letters and words into voice.

The delays in response times within the app make it hard for me to imagine using this with communicators who are combining ideas or who might need multiple layers of pages beyond the Home Page grid to provide them with adequate vocabulary. It’s also probably not a good option for the creative clinician or care provider who wants to create and link lots of pages. It isn’t yet an option that allows for a lot of growth, and I’ll have to stick to other AAC systems for my students with higher needs.

Right now, there’s enough potential that I plan to explore ChatAble with some of my emerging communicators. It will be fun to use the visual scenes and options like WritePad. I will definitely keep my eye out for updates, as I would love to use photographs of students’ own environments as visual scenes for communication. (Think: a photo of the front office with hotspots for appropriate greetings and interactions with office staff, a photo of the Play-Doh table with hotspots for all the different action words you can use, a photo of a student’s transition work site with hotspots allowing him to ask for help with different issues)

A funny post-script: In my experimentation with setting alarms and start time for pages, I typically set them for a time in the immediate future when I I knew I would be using the app. I guess I must have left one on because late last night a shocking train bell sound erupted from my iPad that I had never heard before! I opened it up in a panic only to discover a message that “Your scheduled ‘My Town’ scene is about to start now”! So, I guess I would add that it would be great to be able to see a list of set alarms/start times and GPS triggers!