Power a Wheelchair with a Flick of the Tongue

Dennis Faas's picture

Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have introduced a new kind of technology that could dramatically increase the independence of people living with severe disabilities. The technology powers a system that allows individuals with limited or no use of their extremities to operate a computer, power a wheelchair, and interact with the world around them without any assistance.

How does it work?

Individuals with severe disabilities would be equipped with small magnets (each the size of a grain of rice) attached to their tongue. The system, called Tongue Drive, would allow users to move a cursor across a computer screen or move their wheelchair around the room simply by flicking their tongue in a certain direction.

The movements are recognized by several magnetic field sensors mounted on a headset outside the mouth or on an orthodontic brace inside the mouth. The signals are then wirelessly transmitted to the wheelchair or portable computer. (Source: physorg.com)

The research was entirely funded by the National Science Foundation and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in the hopes of reducing familial burdens and increasing the independence of the disabled.

Why use the tongue?

Unlike hands and feet, which are controlled by the brain through the spinal cord, the tongue is connected to the brain by a cranial nerve that usually escapes damage in severe spinal cord injuries.

Initial tests have revealed that the Tongue Drive carries a response time of less than one second with 100 percent accuracy in six different commands. The information transfer rate is equivalent to 150 bits per minute, which is much faster than the bandwidth of most brain-user interfaces. (Source: gatech.edu)

Assuming that the Tongue Drive is received well (and early tests are proving that this is probable), the next technological breakthrough could see a different command initiated for every tooth touched.

For now, researchers are quite content working with the Tongue Drive one step at a time.

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