The idea of using Morse Code, a technology invented in 1836, might seem a little outdated today. But for Kirkland resident Tania Finlayson, it is a powerful tool that provides independence and the ability to communicate.

“Morse code has been overlooked for too long as being an effective way for people who have physical challenges to operate computers,” Finlayson said in an email. “I need computers to talk, others need computers to earn a living, others need computers to maintain their household, and others might need computers to simply play a game.”

Finlayson developed cerebral palsy during birth, and thereafter, struggled to communicate. She couldn’t speak or use her hands to write. As a young child, she was only able to answer yes and no questions. Eventually, she learned to read and was able to communicate using a word board of 200 different words. Then, her father suggested she try a typewriter.

“The first thing I typed was, ‘You’re an old fart, Dad!’” Finlayson said. “That was the first time I saw him laugh with tears in his eyes; I still don’t know if I made him really laugh or if I made him really sad.”

In order to use the typewriter to communicate, Finlayson had to use a stick attached to her head to hit keys and spell out words. The method, while much less limiting than a word board, wasn’t ideal. It was physically demanding, and she didn’t like wearing the head stick, especially at school.

“I already stood out enough,” she said. “However, I never stopped typing; I got used to the head stick and working with a sore neck, because talking and participating in school was more important to me.”

Discovering Morse Code

A few years later, before Finlayson entered middle school, she learned Morse code. She was one of a handful of children with cerebral palsy chosen to participate in a University of Washington study aimed at enabling the participants to better communicate without using their voices or hands. The project’s research engineer, Al Ross, had created a keyboard-less computer that could translate Morse code into typed words on a visual display. Using head switches inside cushioned earphones attached to their wheelchairs, the children could tap out dashes and dots to form words and sentences.

Morse code

Public domain image.

“I could look at people when talking with someone, versus having to look at a keyboard trying to land my stick on the correct typewriter keys,” Finlayson said. No limiting word boards. No exhausting head sticks. Those 36 codes — 26 letters and 10 numbers — meant freedom.

“My Morse code communicator was able to be mounted on my motorized wheelchair. I could go anywhere and talk to anybody without having to have somebody lug my typewriter behind me,” Finlayson said. “Having an adult following you around on the playground at recess isn’t fun, to put it mildly.”

In the following years, Finlayson developed an even better system, called the TandemMaster, inspired in part by Ross’ original Morse code computer. According to the product’s website, it is an “assistive technology Morse Code input device” that can be configured with a PC or Mac, and “converts dots and dashes into keystrokes and mouse movements.”

A video showing how the TandemMaster works can be viewed here.

Partnering with Google

Late last year, Finlayson began working with a team from Google to develop a Morse code input for Google’s virtual keyboard, Gboard. That input is now available as a public beta release on all Android devices.

“We care a lot about enabling everyone across the world to be able to communicate. In fact, our mission with Gboard is to enable everyone in the world to communicate how they want, what they want, in a very effortless manner,” said Angana Ghosh, product manager for Gboard.

GBoard is available in 350 different languages, covering about 74 percent of the world, but Ghosh and her team want to push that number even higher, not just for people who speak different languages, but for people with different abilities as well.

“We were looking at options for assistance communications, and we found that (Tania) is an expert in the field and has been using Morse code for over 30 years,” Ghosh said. The new Gboard input capability allows people like Tania to connect head switches to their Android devices, which are then able to translate dots and dashes into speech.

Not only is Google hoping to make the Morse code input available to more people worldwide, it has also helped to customize and improve the system. Users have access to predictive word suggestion, a customizable, time-triggered method to “hold down” head switches, and the ability to connect a varied number of head switches.

“It’s incredibly humbling and exciting for us to be in a place where at least if we can empower a few folks to be able to communicate with more people, that is just awesome. I feel super happy about that,” Ghosh said.

When asked what she wants other people to get out of the Gboard input system, Finlayson said, “To have the light bulb moment when people discover that Morse code is able to ultimately transform their lives.”

“It has been one of my biggest dreams to get Morse code more easily accessible for people, because I want others to live their lives how they want,” she added. “Google has opened that door for thousands upon thousands of individuals.”