Tobii Sono Flex Review

Submitted by willwade on September 11, 2011 - 18:21

Tobii have developed a new AAC app for iOS (iPad and iPod/iPhone - a Both+ app). Although the apps marketplace is busy with AAC software it isn't always full of apps that have well thought out vocabulary systems. Having systems that allow you to create your own vocabulary from scratch is great - but for an AAC user and professional this is often so time consuming that its prohibitive to use. Tobii, with their interest in developing vocabulary packages to meet a range of clients needs have gone some way to help remedy this situation with Sono Flex - a vocabulary that will be available on the iPod, iPad and within Tobii Communicator itself and thus their bigger brother "proper" AAC hardware. As Tobii themselves rightfully explain "We understand it is not primarily the iPad or the SGD [Speech Generating Device] that provides the value to the AAC user, but the vocabulary structures and the language"

It's an interesting development because this marks the second traditional "Big player" in AAC to have embraced the platform (the first being the Prente Romich/AMDi/Saltillo combination that has resulted in TouchChat). It's a bit of a gamble but as you will see in this review I would argue a fairly safe gamble. Here is the thing; The whole AAC industry is being hit by a decrease in sales already - the iPod/iPad is certainly part of (but not all of) the reason. Tobii have taken a fairly safe gamble in these economic times - they hope to pick up sales in the sale of the software and "convert" users who need the lacking features of the iPad/Sono Flex combination (ruggedness, speaker output, environmental control, Eyegaze control etc) with a familiar and "easy" upgrade path. With Sensory Software soon to be releasing the Grid Player - a way of accessing your vocabulary designed on the Grid 2 (but not editing) on the iPad - the market is certainly getting even more interesting as the months roll by. iOS 5 should make accessibility even better too. AAC is in for some fun times.

So on with the review. It's going to be broken down into the iPod/iPhone version and then the iPad version. Although similar its worth breaking them down into two different reviews because of the difference in layout (notably core vocab).

First a bit of theory on the layout.

Sono Flex follows the Fitzgerald Key concept of placing words in Categories. Categories can be a bit of a contentious issue - the way you would categorise a range of items would be different to mine and words should, for a range of individuals (from a motor learning perspective), stay in the same place. There are a range of solutions to this age old problem - Tobii are presenting a slight twist on the issue by introducing "Contexts"; a set of shortcuts to different lists of (predefined but modifiable) words and language that may make more sense within the situation; Beach, Classroom, etc.

iPod Touch/iPhone

Layout

Home Screen of Sono Flex Lets break down the screen into 5 areas;

  • the navigational bar,
  • the Message strip,
  • the next screen strip,
  • vocabulary
  • and the context strip.

Oh and note - the iPhone/iPod version only works in Portrait mode (compared to the iPad which is landscape only).

The next screen strip & Category vocabulary areas.

The vocabulary is laid out in a 4x4 grid with you able to edit 4x3 of the grid - the bottom is actually a navigational element to different contexts (See Context Strip). Due to the limited screen size the developers have given the user access to Core vocabulary from this home screen and a swipe or tap to the right by tapping in the next screen strip.


next screen strip of Sono FlexFlex works throughout with a single touch and to get from one screen to another requires a swipe or touch in this small (6mm high by 51.42mm (the full width of the device)) area or swiping more normally (for iOS) from one page to another. Using the "tap/swipe area" can be a bit tricky at first - if you can only manage tapping then the target size is quite small for the next screen "button". It's worth stating that Sono Flex's general vocab cell sizes are just over 11mm squared with approx 1mm gap. There is no possibility to vary the cell size (although this can be seen as a plus - see Alternative access). There is no Tap & Hold feature or other "debounce" type settings to filter out accidental hits.


Things screen of Sono FlexThe home screen is a jumping page to a range of categories of words; Pronouns, People, Verbs, Short words, Describe, Things, Food & Drink, Body and Clothing (this and the food category highlights a small form factor problem - long titles get abbreviated - So it actually reads "Body and ..."), Places, Time, Questions and Write Phrases. The screenshot right shows what happens when you select "Things". You can see that seven pages of words appear. To get back to the Home screen you select the "Home" icon in the navigational bar.

Cell colours, Font

Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives, Adverbs, Pronouns all have different cell colour borders. You can't edit these colours. Font size, location on cell or typeface cannot be modified.



Vocab

Core Vocab

Core Vocab of Sono Flex Can be reached at all times but Selecting Home -> Swipe to the right (or touch on the small area between the message bar and Category area). It's not bad - but I do wonder if its fairly limited. I wonder if two pages would be useful.


 Contexts

As already mentioned the bottom bar is a range of 4 "Contexts" - so for example About Me, Beach, Circle Time and Art. There is a huge range of pre-written contexts already written which is great. And yes - you can write your own new contexts relatively simply (see editing).

Change Contexts of Sono FlexTo change one or all of the four contexts is remarkably simple - simply toggle the home screen button at the top right, select which context to change and then navigate to which context you want it replaced with. I say its remarkably simple - it actually threw me at first as you have to select the context you want to change first. It's hard for an AAC system and in particular Vocab package to stand out from the crowd - Contexts are the main selling point of Flex and it is nicely done.

The Message strip

The Message strip is 10mm high filling the whole width of the device. There are two icons worth pointing out though - one of which isn't entirely obvious. The recycle type icon is meant to mean "Conjugation". The left facing Play type arrow is a delete the last word. It's pretty easy to mishit both of these - I have spent a while trying to delete the last word to hear it keep saying the sentence (but maybe easier with smaller fingers than mine!). There is one setting to know about as well regarding the message strip; "Clear after speaking" will clear the message bar after it is hit and the message spoken.


Conjugations

Conjugations of Sono FlexTobii have a rather large and somewhat peculiar symbol (although granted - I have been racking my brain for a better symbol and can't think of anything) on the message bar to give you all the variations on the word you have just entered. This is better in some ways than the competitions alternative (e.g. press and hold) - it keeps the interaction method the same and its in a convienient place - you just have to remember the action - enter the word first and then the recycle button. It does however take up precious screen space - in an area that is really important. I would love to know how often conjugations are used by the users.


The Navigational strip

Navigational strip of Sono Flex The top navigational bar can't be edited - it contains links to History, Quick Phrases, Keyboard and a select context/home toggle button (it is only a select context button on the home screen - at any other time a "select context" cell").


History

History screen of Sono FlexHistory is remarkably similar to Proloquo2Go's history feature - and rightfully so - its a design interface that works.

Quick Phrases

Is essentially a shortcut to another list of editable essential vocab/phrases. Note: to edit Quick Phrases edit "Write Phrases" - they are essentially the same category.


Keyboard

Keyboard of Sono FlexJust a standard abc keyboard - but with a smaller cell size to get all the keys on one page. Cell sizes are 7mm by 10mm with approx .5 mm gap (i.e. I can't measure it!) This could be a pain if you are planning to use a keyguard. At the bottom most right there is a "abc" icon. Confusing at first - you would think that should mean its a jumping cell to a lowercase keyboard. Its actually a clever cell. One tap makes it jump to a uppercase keyboard for one key. Pressing twice forces it to the uppercase keyboard. Neat and although not adding a new gesture (you can press twice over a long period so we can't call this a "Double tap") it does change, cognitively how the cells work. Its the only place in the whole app that such a "two tap" is required. Tapping or sliding to the right in the next screen strip brings up numbers. Note the keyboard cannot be edited yourself if you are thinking of making your own keyboard layout.

Alternative access

Flex is accessible to the Accessibility API so switch access should be possible. It should be fully accessible to the new era of iOS 5's accesibile devices (joysticks, mice etc..) but until its fully released and we have more idea of the devices available we won't know fully how this will pan out. I expect Tobii to be ontop of it closer to the time however.


Help & Editing

Press & Hold to edit in Sono FlexEditing and finding the help is fairly straightforward. Press and hold on a word or category to bring up a little popup with two options - edit the word or category (depending on which you have selected) and the "help" option, which is simply a link to a PDF. (Warning: This threw me - I have a number of PDF applications on my iPhone - it essentially asks you to leave Sono Flex and read it there). It's a simple action but here's my concern - is it also too accidental for a user to select this (NB: there is no press & hold action available for end users) and then the edit button? Time will tell.


Reordering text of Sono FlexReordering vocab on category pages is relatively easy - you simply drag up or down word in the list. This is OK but its not easy to visualise where the word is actually going to be on the screen (compare with Proloquo2go's cut copy and paste feature which is not perfect either but is visually easier to use). Its suspected that you will be able to edit the Vocab in Tobii Communicator - but at the time of writing this isn't clear. Watch this space.


Selecting photo of Sono Flex Sono Flex uses SymbolStix symbols from News2You. Symbol finding is really straightforward. You can also import your own photos in the editing mode.


 Speech

Speech is using the Acapela Engine. The same engine on Proloquo2Go and TouchChat. Heather, Kenny, Laura, Nelly or Ryan are available. These are all US voices sadly and no customisation is possible in Flex. I know festvox isn't anywhere near comparable to acapela etc but it is free and they would allow for a grater range of voices and customisation to clients. I really wish AAC developers would make use of the festvox libraries more.


Preferences

Preferences Screen of Sono Flex Not a lot to change. I think a good thing. Too many options can create a confusing interface. There is a odd button which is alternative home screen layout. In my opinion the alternative layout is headache - I couldn't work out how to change the contexts (perhaps that's the reason?!). Flex gets a massive plus point by the fact it has stored all of its preferences in the System Preferences -> Sono Flex area rather than in-app. It's nice to see someone picking one place for all it config settings.



iPad

There are some substantial differences between the layout on the iPad to the iPhone device so its worth going through all the elements again for clarity. Essentially though - contexts are moved from the bottom to the right and the speech strip is in the middle top. We also have a 6x4 grid of symbols.

Layout

Home Screen of Sono Flex iPad Lets break down the screen into 5 areas;

  • the navigational bar,
  • the Message strip,
  • the next screen strip,
  • vocabulary
  • and the context strip.

. Before continuing its worth stating that the iPad version works in Landscape only mode.

The next screen strip & Category vocabulary areas.

The vocabulary is laid out in a 7x4 grid with you able to edit 6x4 of the grid - the right hand column is actually a navigational element to different contexts (See Context Strip). In its default state core vocab takes up the first two rows and categories the bottom two rows.

next screen strip of Sono FlexFlex works throughout with a single touch and to get from one screen to another requires a swipe or touch in this small (7mm high by 198mm wide (the full width of the device)) area or swiping more normally (for iOS) from one page to another. Using the "tap/swipe area" can be a bit tricky at first - if you can only manage tapping then the target size is quite small to activate this. It's worth stating that Sono Flex's general vocab cell sizes are just over 26mm squared with approx 1mm gap. There is no possibility to vary the cell size (although this can be seen as a plus - see Alternative access). There is no Tap & Hold feature or other "debounce" type settings to filter out accidental hits.

The home screen is a jumping page to some core vocab and a range of categories of words; Pronouns, People, Verbs, Short words, Describe, Things, Food & Drink, Body and Clothing (this category highlights a small form factor problem which is a bit surprising on the ipad's bigger size - long titles get abbreviated - So it actually reads "Body and Clot.."), Places, Time, Questions and Write Phrases - The same as the iPod version. The screenshot right shows what happens when you select "Things". You can see that seven pages of words appear. To get back to the Home screen you select the "Home" icon in the navigational bar.

Cell colours, Font

Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives, Adverbs, Pronouns all have different cell colour borders. You can't edit these colours. Font size, location on cell or typeface cannot be modified.

Vocab

Core Vocab

Can be reached at all times but Selecting Home. It's backed up by the placement of some "core" like categories - Pronouns, Verbs, People, Places etc on the home screen.

 Contexts

As already mentioned the right hand bar is a range of 4 "Contexts" - so for example About Me, Beach, Circle Time and Art. There is a huge range of pre-written contexts already written which is great. And yes - you can write your own new contexts relatively simply (see editing).

Change Contexts of Sono FlexTo change one or all of the four contexts is remarkably simple - simply toggle the home screen button at the top right, select which context to change and then navigate to which context you want it replaced with. I say its remarkably simple - it actually threw me at first as you have to select the context you want to change first. It's hard for an AAC system and in particular Vocab package to stand out from the crowd - Contexts are the main selling point of Flex and it is nicely done.

The Message strip

The Message strip is 27mm high by 81mm wide in the top middle of the screen. There are two icons worth pointing out though - one of which isn't entirely obvious. The recycle type icon is meant to mean "Conjugation". The left facing Play type arrow is a delete the last word. There is one setting to know about as well regarding the message strip; "Clear after speaking" will clear the message bar after it is hit and the message spoken.

Conjugations

Conjugations of Sono FlexTobii have a rather large and somewhat peculiar symbol (although granted - I have been racking my brain for a better symbol and can't think of anything) on the message bar to give you all the variations on the word you have just entered. This is better in some ways than the competitions alternative (e.g. press and hold) - it keeps the interaction method the same and its in a convienient place - you just have to remember the action - enter the word first and then the recycle button. It does however take up precious screen space - in an area that is really important. I would love to know how often conjugations are used by the users.


The Navigational strip

Navigational strip of Sono Flex The top navigational bar can't be edited - it contains links to History, Quick Phrases, Keyboard and a select context/home toggle button (it is only a select context button on the home screen - at any other time a "select context" cell").


History

History screen of Sono FlexHistory is remarkably similar to Proloquo2Go's history feature - and rightfully so - its a design interface that works.

Quick Phrases

Is essentially a shortcut to another list of editable essential vocab/phrases. You can edit the words in here like any other screen.


Keyboard

Keyboard of Sono FlexJust a standard abc keyboard. At the bottom most right there is a "abc" icon. Confusing at first - you would think that should mean its a jumping cell to a lowercase keyboard. Its actually a clever cell. One tap makes it jump to a uppercase keyboard for one key. Tapping the key two times, even very delayed, forces it to the uppercase keyboard. Neat but this does change, cognitively, how the cells are being used in the software. The only place in the whole app that a double tap gesture is required. Tapping or sliding to the right in the next screen strip brings up numbers. Note the keyboard cannot be edited yourself if you are thinking of making your own keyboard layout.


Alternative access

Flex is accessible to the Accessibility API so switch access should be possible. It should be fully accessible to the new era of iOS 5's accessible devices (joysticks, mice etc..) but until its fully released and we have more idea of the devices available we won't know fully how this will pan out. I expect Tobii to be ontop of it closer to the time however.


Help & Editing

Press & Hold to edit in Sono FlexEditing is fairly straightforward. Press and hold on a word or category to bring up a little popup with two options - edit the word or category (depending on which you have selected) and "help" which is simply a link to a PDF. (Warning: This threw me - I have a number of PDF applications on my iPhone - it essentially asks you to leave Sono Flex and read it there). It's a simple action but here's my concern - is it also too accidental for a user to select this (NB: there is no press & hold action available for end users) and then the edit button? Time will tell.


Reordering text of Sono FlexReordering vocab on category pages is relatively easy - you simply drag up or down word in the list. This is OK but its not easy to visualise where the word is actually going to be on the screen (compare with Proloquo2go's cut copy and paste feature which is not perfect either but is visually easier to use). As soon as you are in a edit screen on the iPad you can edit any of the word "lists" which is far neater than on the iPhone/iPod version.


Selecting photo of Sono Flex Editing individual cells is straightforward and expanded on the iPhone/iPod version. See image. Sono Flex uses SymbolStix symbols from News2You. Symbol finding is really straightforward. You can also import your own photos in the editing mode.


 Speech

Speech is using the Acapela Engine. The same engine on Proloquo2Go and TouchChat. Heather, Kenny, Laura, Nelly or Ryan are available. These are all US voices sadly and no customisation is possible in Flex. I know festvox isn't anywhere near comparable to acapela etc but it is free and they would allow for a grater range of voices and customisation to clients. I really wish AAC developers would make use of the festvox libraries more.

Preferences

Preferences Screen of Sono Flex Not a lot to change. I think a good thing. Too many options can create a confusing interface. There is a odd button which is alternative home screen layout. In my opinion the alternative layout is headache - I couldn't work out how to change the contexts (perhaps that's the reason?!). Flex gets a massive plus point by the fact it has stored all of its preferences in the System Preferences -> Sono Flex area rather than in-app. It's nice to see someone picking one place for all it config settings


Summary

So then how does this compare to the competition? It's hard to not draw the similarities in some areas to other apps - notably TouchChat and Proloquo2Go; particularly when there are some design elements in this app clearly being loosely borrowed from the competition. But if truth be told its a far different beast - just as they all are. Essentially this is first and foremost a vocabulary system which is designed to allow you to progress to other platforms. Secondly its an app that is designed to allow customisation of vocab only. If you are looking for an app with variable cell sizes, colours, different access options (on touch), this isn't it. If you are looking for a communication system that provides access to email, facebook, picture taking, scene displays, this, as could be said about a lot of the apps marketplace, isn't it. If you however you are looking for a category based vocab package on an iPad/iPod then this is a worthy contender.

  • Access: Single Tap (Swipe possible for changing pages, Tap and Hold for editing), (slow) Double Tap to access Caps Lock on keyboard.
  • Accessibility: Accessible using Apple's iOS API
  • iPod Minimum Cell size: 6mm high by 51.42mm wide.
  • iPod Average Cell size: 11mm x 11mm.
  • iPod Grid size: 4x4
  • iPad Minimum Cell size: 7mm high by 7mm wide.
  • iPad Average cell size: 26mm x 26mm
  • iPad Grid size: 7x4
  • Symbol system: Symbolstix
  • Speech: Acapela, US Only. 2 Women, 1 Man, 1 Boy, 1 Girl
  • Access to Camera, Music, Recording: None within App.
  • Access to Volume, Battery life, and other actions: None within App.
  • Sharing text (with Facebook, Twitter etc): None within App.
  • Visual Scene displays: Not possible.
  • Support/Help: inbuilt PDF. Tobii forums, website
  • Desktop Editing: Not at present
  • Vocabulary available on other devices: True.
  • Printing/saving of writing: Not available (unless you take screengrabs).
  • Pro's: Lots of predefined vocabulary in easy to locate and use "Contexts". Consistent cell size in iPad version. Fixed location of "Quick Phrases" across package. A "lite" version which can be trialled before purchasing the full package
  • Con's: Difficult to visually edit location of cells. Little customisation.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 11, 2011 - 14:42

I downloaded this on Friday for the iPad. I haven't found a way to change the settings so that it will speak after each word/button. It only speaks after you select the message strip. Do you know if this is a setting that can be changed?

Thanks!

Submitted by Sue Carlyon (not verified) on March 25, 2012 - 12:10

Downloaded the full version and a little disappointed. Have been using ProLoquo2go with a student and find it far more user friendly. Miss the QWERTY keyboard. Also, would like to have choice of size of cells. I would not be able to use SonoFlex with a young child just starting out on AAC Route as you can with ProLoquo. Also, no predict type. To be honest, the free Grid Player suits the students I have more than SonoFlex at the moment. I did some editing on the About Me page, then updated the App and lost everything I had done. Also too American. As I have the full version, I will keep up to date with SonoFlex's developments, but for the moment will not be using it with my students.

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