I'm not sure where to start my story about Digital Scribbler, because there are several really important factors at work here:

1. "Built in the garage" has long been a powerful origin story for technology companies, but now it's even easier for this sort of thing to occur. The barriers to entry for Web and mobile startups are fairly low. No longer must a tech company invest tens of thousands of dollars in servers, software development, and customer acquisition before launching. This has resulted in an explosion of tech startups, indie developers, app makers. Tech development has been (somewhat) democratized; or at least, more people are able to do it. These smaller, leaner companies are also able to build tech tools that -- by virtue of the lower overhead costs -- target issues that larger companies might not address, those without a "mass market" (or massive profit) appeal.

2. The Internet is ubiquitous -- sorta. Accessibility is still an issue for lots of people for lots of reasons. But it's hard to deny: mobile phones and touchscreen devices are bringing access to computing power and to the Internet to new demographics who, up until now, have been unlikely or unable to have it -- to the elderly, for example, and to those with special needs.

It's the latter group that Digital Scribbler aims to serve, specifically by giving those who are non-verbal a means to communicate. But it's the blend of both the factors above that make the story of the startup particularly compelling.

Digital Scribbler is the work of Russ Ewell -- father of three, including a non-verbal child with autism. Ewell's wife is the executive director of the Hope Technology School, an inclusive school in Palo Alto, California, and in Ewell's words, the school has been a "testing ground" for many of his technology ideas. That has included work with a number of assistive technologies and a number of companies, including HP and their Touchsmart team.

There's something about tablets -- the large touchscreen -- that have enabled these devices to open up new worlds for kids with special needs. Indeed, as Steve Jobs once cooed, they're "magical." That seems to be particularly true for those with autism, and there have been an incredible number of stories about parents and teachers who have found the iPad to be a miracle device of sorts.

But it's the new app ecosystem around the iPad, the iPhone, the Android phone and tablets that's also very promising, and yesterday Ewell's startup launched its first app into the Android Marketplace: Quick Talk. Designed with Ewell's son's needs in mind, Quick Talk gives a voice -- literally -- to those who are non-verbal. The app allows people to communicate via Android's built-in Text-to-Speech engine and with buttons that they can tap to express their needs and feelings.

The app's main screen has two color-coded buttons that give the user a simple choice of phrases to speak: Yes or No, for example. Juice or Water. These buttons can be customized with both text and color, and you can sort phrases into multiple categories. You can also adjust which of Android's built-in voices you want to use to talk.

The app does require literacy, of course, something that Ewell plans to address in upcoming iterations of the app, so that images can accompany the phrases.

But that's another thing about mobile app development: these sorts of fast iterations -- ones that meet the needs and responses of users -- can be done fairly quickly and easily. This isn't bloated, spendy software on a slow release schedule. It's an 99 cent app built by a dad, hoping that he can give his kid -- and lots of others -- a voice.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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