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Now your tongue can secretly operate a computer, wheelchair

The iPhone-friendly Tongue Drive System employs a retainer embedded with sensors that track a tiny magnet attached to the user's tongue.

The system interprets commands from seven tongue movements to operate a computer or wheelchair.
Maysam Ghovanloo

Many with ALS or high-level spinal-cord injuries have been relying for years on the old sip-and-puff technology to operate wheelchairs and computers. This tech requires the user to sip or puff precise amounts of air pressure into a straw, and it is anything but subtle.

The operation of wheelchairs and other devices could soon be far less conspicuous, thanks to a prototype dental retainer developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology--for those who don't mind getting their tongues pierced, that is.

Featuring a small retainer that fits along the roof of the mouth, the Tongue Drive System uses sensors to track the movement of a tiny magnet on the user's tongue, thereby allowing the user to issue commands by pointing his or her tongue in different directions.

The researchers presented the prototype, which improves on an earlier version whose sensors were mounted onto a headset, at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week.

The interface holds the iPod (or other iOS device), wirelessly receives the sensor data and delivers it to the iPod, connects the iPod to the wheelchair, charges the iPod, and includes a container where the dental retainer can be placed at night for charging. Maysam Ghovanloo

"By moving the sensors inside the mouth, we have created a Tongue Drive System with increased mechanical stability and comfort that is nearly unnoticeable," Maysam Ghovanloo, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said in a statement.

The magnetic field sensors are mounted onto the four corners of the retainer, which contains the circuitry, a lithium ion battery and induction coil to charge the battery, and a moisture-resistant cover.

To operate a wheelchair or computer, the device wirelessly transmits the output signals from the sensors to an iPhone or iPod installed with software to interpret various tongue commands. This information can be used in a few ways, including controlling a cursor on a screen or a joystick in a wheelchair.

The researchers hope that the device's high level of sensitivity could allow for more commands to be programmed into the system than was capable with the headset. The user might even be able to customize different commands.

The researchers already recruited 11 people with high-level spinal-cord injuries to test the headset version of the system at the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Trial participants were willing to go the distance; each received a clinical tongue piercing and stud containing the tiny magnet in the upper ball.

Once this newer prototype is tested on a small number of users, the team hopes to move to larger clinical trials.