Targeting disabilities with tech

In Asia, several companies get grants from Samsung's DigitAll Hope program to technology to benefit the underprivileged, disabled.

3 min read
SINGAPORE--In the middle of the minister's speech, David Kinnear began to cry.

It was a broken, tortured call, sometimes rising into a wail of anguish.

"You are disabled through limitations that nature has imposed on you," Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's acting minister for community development, youth and sports, continued softly. "It's not something that you chose or something that you deserve. But you have a heart and mind and hope."

Kinnear is paralyzed from the neck down. He is confined to his wheelchair, unable to move his arms and his legs, following a massive stroke in January. Food is fed to him through a tube to his stomach, and he communicates using eye movements. When he wants to say "yes," he looks upward.

For a moment after the official event, Dr. Balakrishnan, a medical doctor by training, reprised his role as physician. He examined Kinnear's condition and spoke words of encouragement.

"Don't give up, David," he said quietly, with a tinge of sternness. "There's still a lot that can be done."

For the minister, one answer is technology.

Beyond the photo opportunities and the cameos, Samsung's DigitAll Hope 2004 awards announcement on Monday drove its point across. Showcasing the best efforts around the region at using technology to benefit the underprivileged and disabled, the event and its sobering undertones underscored the minister's message to the disabled community: "Technology allows us to break past the barriers that nature has imposed on us."

Several organizations were rewarded with grants as part of Samsung's community initiatives in the region. In Malaysia, the Lions Club of CyberCare, a voluntary organization, is building IT infrastructure for youths in orphanages. In Indonesia, the Yayasan Mitra Netra, a nonprofit body, is working to improve Internet accessibility for the visually handicapped. The University of Education in Vietnam is compiling a dictionary of signs and putting it on the Web.

In Singapore, The Society for the Physically Disabled and the Institute for Infocomm Research are embarking on a cutting-edge project to allow users to communicate via brain waves. The move will benefit those who have lost the use of limbs, such as patients who suffer from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and tetraplegia.

Kinnear will be one of the participants in the project.

In this solution, the letters of a keyboard are flashed in a predetermined sequence, and the brain's reactions are recorded by an electroencephalogram sensor worn by the receiver. The device is based on a simple concept: When you see the letter you want, the brain automatically registers a spike in electrical activity.

In reality, the Brainy Communicator--as the solution is dubbed--is very much in its infancy. It's a slow process; scientists expect users to be able to type just five characters per minute. Brain wave patterns can be difficult to detect and analyze due to interference, and users require steady concentration for better accuracy. Furthermore, current equipment is too cumbersome for everyday use.

The organizations are working on it. It's still in the early days, but speeds have already been vastly improved. Under lab conditions, accuracy can surpass the 95 percent targeted by scientists.

"What we are seeing now is the convergence of nanotechnology, biology and information technology which, together, can enhance human capabilities," said Jian Kang WU, principle scientist at the Institute for Infocomm Research. Although the proposed Brainy Communicator is a noninvasive technique, he foresees the use of embedded nanomachines to enhance accuracy and reduce brain wave interference.

According to Chia Woon Yee, manager of the Assistive Technology Centre at the Society for the Physically Disabled, the entire project is expected to take two years and cost $300,000 Singapore dollars ($182,272 U.S. dollars), of which almost one-third has been sponsored by Samsung. At the end of 2006, she hopes to have two to five working prototypes, with perhaps the chance that a manufacturer will commercialize the technology.

Converting brain waves into letters is only the first step, she added. Maybe in time, patients will be able to control wheelchairs with just their minds. The technology may also find a willing mass market in the realms of games and digital homes.

As Dr. Balakrishnan departed from the technology showcase, he turned to Kinnear and asked, "We'll keep in touch. OK, David?"

Kinnear responded with an upward glance of his eye--yes, he replied. Next time, perhaps, he'll be using the Brainy Communicator.

Aloysius Choong of CNET Asia reported from Singapore.