Electric Wheelchair Future Technology

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Live demo of mind-controlled electric wheelchair

In start of October, a powered wheelchair that moves when user thinks on particular word, was demonstrated by American company Ambient. The electric wheelchair operates by catching the signals sent from user’s brain to their larynx (voice box), even when there is no audiable sound. Wheelchair was developed to help people with spinal injuries, or neurological problems like cerebral palsy or motor neurone disease. This revolutionary brain interface allows user to operate computer and other equipmentdespite serious problems with muscle control. Similar to autonomous remote controlled electric wheelchair we already wrote about, this system allows user even more freedom, as all user has to do is think of the word. System consists of larynx (voice box), which user must be able to operate – and most likely can, even in the event of poor muscle coordination necessary to produce coherent speech.

This breakthrough voice boy system called larynx control system, or shortly “Audeo”, was developed by researchers Michael Callahan and Thomas Coleman at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, who together also founded Ambient. 

High hopes on restoring speech

The system works via a sensor-laden neckband which eavesdrops on electrical impulses sent to larynx muscles. It then relays the signals through an secured wireless link, to a computer. The computer decodes signals and compares them to a series of prerecorded “commands” setup during initialization. These “commands” can then be used to direct an electric motorised wheelchair. Developers say this works reliably even through the skin, which makes it hard to record signals. Currently more than three companies are persuing “mind control” devices, allowing disabled to enjoy full life. We have seen some implants, put directly on brain itself, but Audeo is by far the only one which showed great results with pure external sensors.

Next generation of possibilities

Developers also showcased automatic mind controlled speech synthesis, allowing a paralysed person to “speak” out loud. Other competitors in area of mind controlled assistive technology that concentrate on measuring brain waves or even ones using an electrode cap or implants placed directly in the brain, were so far unable to reproduce either single words or continuous speech. But Audeo in combination with recent refinements to the algorithms used in speech processing may make it possible to interpret whole sentences thought out by the user. This could potentially restore near-normal speech to people who have not spoken for years, the researchers say.

Audeo makers insist, that reading information directly from the brain is the only possible way to help people with severe spinal injuries. Because some patients are not even able to send nerve signals to the muscles in their face,and interfacing with the brain is the only way there.

Advantege of Audeo is that it is very portable, not cumbersome to set-up, and the ease of use. It is interesting, that NASA produced a similar system in 2004. It could recognize a handful of short words and numbers, and the individual letters of the alphabet. The agency hopes to eventually integrate the technology into spacesuits.

Thinking of words is all required to drive this electric wheelchair, say scientists at Ambient(company developing wheelchair with Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, US).