Technology Restores Speech, Movement

The day may soon come when those who can't speak will be able to talk, those who cannot walk will be able to move freely, and those who cannot move at all will be able to turn on the television set and turn down the lights.

Scientists and engineers are making remarkable progress in developing the technology needed to intercept signals sent by the human brain and translate those signals into various types of actions. The possible applications are virtually limitless, with the potential to bring profound relief to millions of people who have lost some of their bodily functions because of disease or traumatic injuries.

The technology has advanced well beyond the surgically implanted sensors of just a couple of years ago. Today's sensors are noninvasive. They are featherweight, tiny, and need only be held against the skin.

Some of the firms that are bringing the technology to the marketplace are almost as new as the technology itself. The Ambient Corp. of Chicago is just slightly over two years old, but it expects to introduce a device called the Audeo by the middle of next year, restoring speech to some who have lost it.

The company was founded in October 2005 by a couple of whiz kids from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- Michael Callahan and Thomas Coleman. The two have been working for several years to create a system so sensitive that it can read the signals sent by the brain to the vocal chords, and send those signals to a computer that can pronounce the words that the person can no longer say.

As a demonstration project, Callahan and Coleman built a wheelchair that can be controlled entirely by the operator simply thinking about saying which way to turn the wheelchair, and whether to move forward or backward. The Audeo intercepts the signals sent by the brain and turns them into commands to move the wheelchair.

Actual production of the wheelchair is several years away, Callahan said in an interview, but not because the system doesn't work. It's just that it doesn't work exactly right every time, thus raising serious concerns about liability.

"If either the person makes a mistake using the device, or the device itself makes a mistake that's tied to movement, that could be bad for everybody," Callahan said.

So the wheelchair is on the back burner, but a communications device is moving full-speed ahead.

The two entrepreneurial engineers have been working with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the most respected rehabilitation centers in the world, to help people "speak" after losing their ability to talk because of disease or injury.

"Patients who have come from all over the world get to be involved in some of the testing and development work," Callahan said. The institute is aggressively pursuing the technology.

All this began years ago, when Callahan and Coleman were students in the engineering department at the University of Illinois. The department is famous for its emphasis on getting students to teach themselves and then move into the marketplace to solve global problems.

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