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Toe-taps operate programmable floor keyboard

By Mark Baard
July 4, 2011

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Assistive tech
A new substitute for the keyboard and mouse promises to get desk jockeys working their feet and toes instead of letting them go numb during hours bent over the computer. Designed by Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI), which also makes a USB/MIDI foot controller for music playing and recording, the SoftStep KeyWorx multi-touch foot controller might provide relief to folks with repetitive strain injury and aid those with limited use of their arms and hands.

In fact, the SoftStep KeyWorx (about $290) is available not only at Amazon.com, but also at online sellers of assistive technologies such as EnableMart.com and Disabled Online.

The SoftStep KeyWorx works with software that runs on your Windows PC or Apple Macintosh computer. The foot controller sits on the floor beneath you, awaiting the toe taps that will launch apps, adjust system volume, or bring different windows forward within an application.

KMI is also pitching the foot controller as a useful tool for gamers and those running simulators. The SoftStep KeyWorx has 10 keys, which are backlit in blue so you can see them when you peer into the darkness under your desk. The flexible foot controller weighs less than a pound and can fit in a backpack, according to KMI. You can program up to 100 commands into the keyboard.

While you can enter text using the SoftStep KeyWorx, the foot controller seems like it would be most useful for entering basic commands.

Robotics

‘Nao’ robot available for high schools

Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics, which has offices in Cambridge, is doing its part to ensure that there will soon be a humanoid robot in every home. The first step toward that end is getting a robot into every classroom, where students can teach them to perform useful tasks and to perhaps behave properly around people.

The company last week announced that its pint-sized robot, Nao, which some university researchers are already infusing with human traits such as empathy, will be sold as part of a package for high school classrooms in the United States. Students can program the robot, and teachers will be able to use Nao as a compelling medium for delivering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lessons, according to Aldebaran.

Adebaran also said it is developing a Web tool that teachers can use to meet other users of the robot and to share curriculums and labs. The company is being characteristically vague about the availability and pricing for the Nao STEM, but I have seen other Nao models selling online for between $10,000 and $15,000.

The Nao robot, which is the RoboCup platform that replaced Sony’s Aibo several years ago, is easy to program, according to Aldebaran. Using a graphical interface, students can drag and drop sets of behaviors controlling the robot’s articulated limbs. Nao is capable of far more sophisticated programming. And Aldebaran recently announced it will release part of its source code for Nao to the open source community.