Like many vital things in our lives, we tend to take expressing our thoughts and needs for granted. Have an opinion? Go right ahead and voice it. Hungry and want a sandwich? Sure, shout it out and someone will deliver. Imagine, then, not having a voice. That’s the world many people with debilitating illnesses such as cerebral palsy or ALS find themselves in, frustrated that they can’t share their thoughts.
Now hope is on the horizon, though, thanks to Penn State biomedical engineer and self-professed “incurable problem-solver” Mary Elizabeth McCulloch and her Project Vive team. They have devised a system that disabled people can operate with the press of a finger or toe, or even by simply flexing an elbow or ankle.
“Project Vive is not just a device,” explains McCulloch, “but a humanitarian effort to help improve the lives of people with complex communication needs. We are utilizing technology as a catalyst to develop, manufacture and distribute an affordable system to give a voice to the voiceless.”
McCulloch was an exchange student in Ecuador when she was in high school, and while she was there, she volunteered at an orphanage where she spent time with children who had nonverbal cerebral palsy. Seeing their struggle to communicate had a powerful impact on her and led her to become passionate about developing technology to help people in similar circumstances.
Arlyn Edelstein is the first user of the Voz Box, Project Vive’s inexpensive speech-generation device. She’s helped test the technology every step of the way, suggesting refinements and practical adjustments. Watch her delight as she uses the Voz Box to share one of her poems:
So how exactly does the Voz Box system work? The Project Vive team explain that it’s got three parts. The first element is a sensor that the user works as a clicker. It is attached to any part of the body that the user can control. The second part is an earpiece that presents a menu where the user can use the sensor to choose words and form sentences. Those sentences are then forwarded to a microprocessor with a speaker attached to it, and that’s what speaks the user’s sentence for him or her. “With these three components, our device is inexpensive, effective, compact and wearable,” the inventors say.
The relatively simple device is more affordable than the eye-movement-controlled systems currently on the market. The Voz Box is custom-designed for each user, and it is straightforward, so people can learn to use it fairly quickly. Even if the user has low motor control, the Voz Box can be adapted so it works with a part of their body that they do have some control over.
Project Vive has just started on its “Journey to Ten Voices,” which is a crowdfunding campaign to raise $10,000, enough to pay for 10 Voz Boxes for people who can’t speak. Backers have already donated 75 percent of the goal, with another week left to go.