Tech lets tongue drive the PC, wheelchair

Georgia Tech develops technology that would allow people with severe disabilities to operate a wheelchair or computer by moving their tongue. They only need to get as hip as a tongue-pierced punk.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking blinks an eye to control a computer and voice synthesizer. But with the use of a new technology, he could use his tongue instead.

Engineers at Georgia's Institute of Technology have developed technology that would allow people with severe disabilities, such as Hawking, to operate a wheelchair or computer by moving their tongue. They only need to get as hip as a tongue-pierced punk.

The technology, which was described in this month's issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, involves a small magnet the size of a grain of rice, which gets pierced into the person's tongue. A companion device embedded with magnetic sensors, such as an orthodontic brace or headset, can then trace the movement of the tongue and transmit those signals wirelessly to a nearby portable computer.

People can set six tongue motions, such as a right-click, and use their tongue like a joystick to direct movements of a cursor on a computer screen or power a wheelchair.

The engineers hope to evolve the technology, called the Tongue Drive System, so that people could eventually use their teeth as a keyboard. The technology is still in a trial phase.

Georgia Tech chose to focus on the tongue, instead of the hands and feet, because the tongue's function is controlled by the brain through a cranial nerve that generally escapes damage in severe spinal cord injuries or neuromuscular diseases, according to Maysam Ghovanloo, a lead on the project.

"Tongue movements are also fast, accurate, and do not require much thinking, concentration or effort," Ghovanloo said in a statement.

Hawking, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's Disease, once used a hand switch to control a computer-driven synthesizer. But his muscles have become too weak in recent years, so he now uses an infrared blink switch.

Georgia Tech has received a $120,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $150,000 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Georgia Tech assistant professor Maysam Ghovanloo (left) points to a tiny magnet pierced to a student's tongue that would help him control a computer cursor or power a wheelchair. Georgia Tech/Gary Meek
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