ATLANTA -- The tireless tongue already controls taste and speech. Now scientists hope to turn it into a computer control pad.
Georgia Tech researchers believe a magnetic, tongue-powered system could transform a disabled person's mouth into a virtual computer, teeth into a keyboard — and tongue into the key that manipulates it all.
"You could have full control over your environment by just being able to move your tongue," says Maysam Ghovanloo, an assistant professor who leads the team's research.
The group's Tongue Drive System turns the tongue into a joystick of sorts, allowing the disabled to manipulate wheelchairs, manage home appliances and control computers. The work still has a ways to go — one potential user called the design "grotesque" — but early tests are encouraging.
The system is far from the first that seeks to control electronics through facial movements. But advocates for the disabled hope that the tongue could prove the most effective. "This could give you an almost infinite number of switches and options for communication," said Mike Jones, a vice president of research and technology at the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta rehabilitation hospital.
That's quite a contrast to the handful of methods already available to those who are disabled from the neck down.
The "sip and puff" technique lets people issue commands by inhaling and exhaling into a tube. But it offers users only four different commands.
Control systems that use sophisticated pads to measure neck and head movements are widespread, but using the hardware can be tiring. And while innovations that track eye movement are promising, they can be costly, slow and susceptible to mixed signals.
The tongue, though, is a more flexible, sensitive and tireless option. Like other facial muscles, its functions tend to be spared in accidents that can paralyze, because the tongue is not controlled through the spinal cord.
A Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, NewAbilities Systems, has already designed a nine-button keypad placed on the roof of the mouth to control electronics. Ghovanloo's work, however, centers on creating a virtual keyboard. He does that through a magnet about 3 millimeters wide that's placed under the tip of the tongue.
The magnet's movement is tracked by sensors on the side of each cheek, which sends data to a receiver atop a rather bulky set of headgear. It is then processed by software that converts the movement into commands for a wheelchair or other electronics.
After turning the system on, users are asked to establish six commands: Left, right, forward, backward, single- and double-click. Ghovanloo hopes he could one day add dozens more commands that turn teeth into keyboards and cheeks into computer consoles. "Left-up could be turning lights on, right-down could be turning off the TV," he says.
The team's work has attracted a $120,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $150,000 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. But challenges await. Researchers must pare down the bulky headgear. The team also must improve the software and boost the wireless battery's charge.