The wheelchair driven by a tongue piercing: Cool concept faces uphill battle


(Georgia Tech)

Maysam Ghovanloo envisions a world where the disabled are increasingly independent thanks to technology. The Georgia Tech professor is developing a system that allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to control their wheelchair or digital devices by moving their tongue.

“Once you can enable these individuals to use their iPhone, iPod, Android phone or whatever, they have it can totally change their quality of life. They can communicate. They can ask for help. They can entertain themselves. They can order things,” Ghovanloo said.

There are already assistive technologies on the market to help those paralyzed from the neck down, but a study published last week found that Ghovanloo’s tongue-drive system allowed participants to better control their wheelchairs than the leading assistive technology, sip and puff.

Ghovanloo’s system relies on sensors picking up the movements of a magnet inside a metal barbel in the tongue. With a sip-and-puff system, a user either inhales or exhales slowly or quickly on a plastic tube.

“It’s really powerful because it’s so intuitive,” Jason DiSanto told the Associated Press. He was among the first to try the system. “The first time I did it, people thought I was driving for, like, years.”

By moving the tongue from side to side, a user can control their wheelchair or digital device. (Video courtesy of Georgia Tech)
By moving the tongue from side to side, a user can control a wheelchair or digital device. (Georgia Tech)

“I think this one has potential to see. They just need to figure out how to develop it in a fashion that will be affordable by a large enough market,” said Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R&D Center and a professor at Wisconsin-Madison. He has been working on technology for the disabled for over 40 years.

Nailing down a price is difficult now, as the device isn’t expected to be on the market until 2015, provided things go well, according to Ghovanloo. But he said it will cost several times more than the sip-and-puff systems, which could be a challenge to it being widely accepted.

One perk of the tongue-drive system is that it is always on a user’s body. It’s not mounted on a wheelchair or bed. The device is designed to not be affected by speech or eating. None of the commands a user can issue take place in the midline of the mouth, so speaking won’t disrupt the system. And a person can deactivate the device to eat by holding their tongue against their cheek for three seconds.


(Georgia Tech)

Ghovanloo is working on an updated version that relies on a retainer in the user’s mouth to detect the tongue’s movements, so that head gear like that shown above  doesn’t have to be worn. While older individuals weren’t comfortable getting a tongue piercing to use the system, younger ones were receptive.

“They have gone through more significant surgeries. This is really laughable to them. This is not an issue,” Ghovanloo said.

Ghovanloo’s work could help solve one problem — that handicapped individuals often don’t have ways to use the latest computer or smartphone.

“More and more technology is getting adopted and put into mainstream because there are cost savings, but accessibility is not taken into consideration. People with disabilities are getting marginalized more and more,” said Harry Lew, manager of research and development at the Neil Squire Society, which advocates for assistive technologies on devices such as cellphones.

A 2009 FCC study found that the disabled are less likely to use Internet-based communications technologies due in part to physical barriers.

For example, cellphones have a short life cycle, with updated or new phones emerging every year. The community striving to develop apps to make these devices accessible to the disabled is small, and can struggle to keep up with the requirements of the latest operating system or digital device.

While Ghovanloo’s creation shows promise, the regulatory process, liability questions and the challenge of dealing with insurance companies awaits.

“Navigating a little bit better is something the user would like. But from an insurance company perspective, they probably aren’t going to pay for it. What is out there works well enough,” Lew said. “You’re not going to get the Cadillac of wheelchairs unless you’re willing to pay for it yourself.”

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | December 2, 2013