Intel, the company that has been supplying Stephen Hawking with the technology he needs to communicate with the outside world since the 1990s, is currently working on new technology that will enable him to communicate faster.
Renowned physicist, Hawking has battled against the degenerative motor neuron disease for the last 50 years and has for a long time, needed technological aids to enable him to speak or compose words. Over the last few years, Hawking’s condition has deteriorated so much that the rate at which he communicates has fallen to one word per minute.
Intel however are hoping that they can bring the rate right back up again by using a type of technology that will not only register the muscle twitches in Hawking’s cheek, but is able to read the other facial muscles that he can still control.
For the last 10 years Hawking has been communicating using a complicated setup that includes a tablet PC with a forward-facing webcam that he can use to place Skype calls. An infrared sensor on Hawking’s eyeglasses detects the change in light when he twitches his cheek and is used to compose words which are then sent to the USB hardware key located in a black box beneath his wheelchair. This box also contains an audio amplifier and voltage regulators. A hardware voice synthesizer is contained in another black box at the back of the chair and is set up to receive commands from the computer.
Each cheek twitch will stop a curser that continually scans text that is located on the computer facing Hawking.
Speaking at last week’s International Consumer Electronic Show (CES) Intel’s chief technology officer Justin Rattner said that he and his team were close to a breakthrough that would boost the rate at which Hawking communicates.
Rattner noted that Hawking was able to make a number of other facial movements and that these could be used to bolster his communication rate. Rattner said that by providing Hawking with two inputs they would also give him the ability to communicate using Morse code – which in itself would present an improvement.
Hawking reached out to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore towards the end of 2011 and told him that his ability to communicate had slowed and asked if there was anything that Intel could do to help.
Rattner met with Hawking in 2012 and after this meeting he began working on ways to help take Hawking’s word communication rate up to 5-per minute using the company’s processor technology.
Rattner and Intel’s other computer scientists are now developing a system that will utilize Hawking’s other facial movements to give signals to the computer. Rattner said: “We’ve built a new, character-driven interface in modern terms that includes a better word predictor.”
Intel is also looking into the idea of using facial-recognition software to create a different kind of user interface that would be much faster at selecting individual letters and words.
The company’s work with Hawking falls into their broader research into smart gadgets and assistive technologies for the elderly. Rattner said that the key to advancing smart devices would be to introduce context awareness. He believes that in the near future our devices will be able to understand us and read our facial expressions in much the same way that a friend or family member would. He said; “We’ll be emotionally connected with our devices in a few years.”
Source: Scientific American