New Sensors Detect Speech Without Sound

"We could look at how non-acoustic sensors such as TERC could fit in clinical applications -- say, detecting problems with vocal cords," says Brown. TERC might even be able to tell if someone has had a little too much to drink.

"When you're intoxicated, your vocal chords become heavier. So maybe we can detect intoxication, strictly by chord movement," says Brown. But, "we don't have any studies in those areas yet."

Steps Toward Silent Speakers

Whether Brown can spur further funding and research for TERC remains to be seen. But the promise of better, less stressful mobile communications isn't just a pipe dream.

According to Jan Walker, a public information officer for DARPA, the defense agency is in the process of outlining the second phase of its Advanced Speech Encoded project. Some of the more promising prospects include technology developed in NASA's Ames Laboratory which uses electrodes that may be able to detect sub-vocal or perhaps even completely silent speech.

And even DARPA's early research efforts are already proving useful.

AliphCom, a technology company in Brisbane, Calif., recently began selling a high-tech, noise-canceling headset for consumer cell phones based on technology developed years ago for the initial phase of DARPA's project.

Its $150 Jawbone unit uses both a conventional microphone and a sensor that picks up vibrations from a person's jaw -- hence the name. Tiny digital signal processors in the device are able to compare the electric signals generated by both the microphone and the vibration sensor to quickly determine speech from background "noise." The chips generate a signal that's completely opposite of the noise, effectively eliminating it from the spoken voice portion.

Company co-founder Hosain Rahman said Jawbone has been "incredibly well-received in the consumer press" since it became commercially available last year. What's more, "It is being used for further DARPA development," said Rahman. (DARPA's Walker confirms that AliphCom is one of the participants in the second phase of its research project but did not elaborate further.)

Still, the Jawbone technology isn't currently available for every model of consumer cell phone. And since Jawbone is an "active noise cancellation" headset, the technology does sap some power from the cell phone. The company estimates users can expect a 15 percent to 25 percent reduction in a cell phone's battery life but the headset has a switch to turn off the noise-canceling feature when not needed.

Such limitations may mean many of us will still have to endure the clamor of vociferous cell phone users for some time.

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