Doing the Impossible
A game. It presents a grid of colored boxes. Okay, looks pretty straightforward. Click. The boxes flip over in pairs, each one revealing a box of a different color. So, to get all the boxes to be the same color, you have to click them in the right combinations. Makes sense. How hard can this be?
A few successes; a few false starts; a few corrections, and Level One mastered. The game keeps track of how few moves it takes you to solve the puzzle, so try to keep them to a minimum. Got it. Level Two: Click… Wait a minute… what’s it doing? The boxes in Level Two flip over in different combinations than Level One…!
And, so, the head-banging commences.
And that’s just Level Two, the one labeled, merely, Hard. This is the level where you learn why the subsequent levels have names like Torture. And Agony. And Insanity. One imagines that, by the time one gets to Mauling, one is willing to accept the reasoning behind the level named Impossible.
The game is Cube Cyclops. It was written by a Nashville native named Todd Kinnane, a man who does the impossible every day. We visited Todd at his home, to witness a demonstration of a remarkable computer interface, by a man who is a consummate master of it.
Kinnane’s history with Griffin goes back to the company’s beginning. He met founder Paul Griffin when he purchased one of Griffin’s earliest products. He remembers Paul as “a very friendly person eager to help me with the monitor adapter issue I had.”
Struck by the contrast between Cube Cyclops’ simple appearance and its underlying complexity, I wondered about its intended audience or age group. So I asked Kinnane, in a brief email correspondence. He replied, “I really didn’t have an audience in mind when I created Cube Cyclops. I was playing around with some ideas with a puzzle game and I eventually created it in an Excel worksheet using Microsoft Visual Basic for applications. I wasn’t thinking about converting the game to a smartphone app at the time. That idea came later.”
Kinnane worked with a graphic designer and a software developer who specializes in smartphone apps. “From my original ideas through the completion and release of the smartphone app took around a year.” It was a straightforward process, but converting the game to a smartphone app took longer than expected. “I had to set up my computer to control a smartphone where I could review and test everything, since I am disabled with ALS.”
Todd Kinnane was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, abbreviated ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) six years ago. ALS is a progressive disease that erodes the body’s ability to make voluntary muscle movements. The disease was first described in the medical literature as early as 1869, but it wasn’t generally known until 1939, when baseball great Lou Gehrig abruptly retired, giving his famous farewell speech, after having been diagnosed with the disease. ALS is most commonly diagnosed in adults between the ages of 40 and 70, and it’s estimated that as many as 30,000 people in America, alone, have the disease.
At present, Todd’s movements are limited to just his neck and head. Though he is confined to a wheelchair and breathes with the aid of a ventilator, as far as interacting with the human community, Todd Kinnane is anything but immobilized. We showed up at Todd’s house to witness the ingenious computer setup that helps him overcome his disability.
We found Todd in his home office, sitting at his desk. In front of him was a large but fairly standard-looking flat screen monitor, connected to a large but fairly standard-looking HP tower computer. The computer’s only modification, which doesn’t show on the outside of the box, is that it’s packed with RAM. The only visible addition to his setup is to the monitor: attached to the top of it is what at first glance appears to be an ordinary, garden-variety webcam. Actually, it is an infrared sensor that tracks the movements of an IR target he wears on the bridge of his glasses.
On the desk in front of him is a normal keyboard and mouse. But Todd doesn’t use them. The real action takes place on Todd’s flat screen, where the cursor arrow is in constant motion. Wherever he allows the pointer to hover, the interface interprets as a mouse click. The software allows him to choose whether the hover is interpreted as a left, right, or double click. It also allows him to type words using an onscreen keyboard. As the pointer hovers over a key, the key turns into a mini progress bar, slowly filling with a solid color from left to right. Unless he repeals the hover by settling over a different key, the software places the letter on an onscreen notepad page. This is how Todd carries on a conversation, and he is remarkably deft at it.
The software is also predictive. Typing a G, for instance, shows him choices of commonly-used words that begin with G. We watch as Todd adds more letters, spelling out G-E-O-R …at which point the software narrows its suggestions to just two choices: George Washington and George W. Bush. In this way, Todd carries on conversations remarkably swiftly — but he’s not at all put out if you make guesses and finish his sentences for him.
Todd explains that, in the beginning, when he first started using this interface, he controlled it by means of the mouse. “It progresses as the disease progresses.” Now, with a minimum of movement on Todd’s part, the machine translates simple head gestures into commands to control his operating system setup, launch applications, show movies, write and reply to email, surf the web, communicate with the other people in his house, and carry on conversations with people in the room.
We wound up our interview, as Todd keeps to a busy schedule, impressed with his computer setup, and with his mastery of it. I had come expecting to witness a means of coping with a debilitating disease. Instead, by the time I left, it was not hard for me to perceive a certain note of pride in the parting words on Todd’s screen: “I can do anything.”
Learn more about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the ALS Association’s website: http://www.alsa.org