Engineers around the world are hard at work developing technologies that will make life easier for those with disabilities. Members of IEEE – the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity – are among them. The ones featured here are working on projects to help people with ALS, those who are wheelchair-bound and others who need a helping hand with household chores.
A Communication Device for ALS
Lama Nachman, director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab in Santa Clara, Calif., is leading the team that is upgrading Stephen Hawking’s communication system and making it open source. This will eventually help others living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known as ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle twitching, weakness and speech impairment – to better communicate. Hawking, the famous British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, relies on an Intel computer system to type and voice his thoughts as well as navigate computer applications and Internet browsing. His upgraded system reduced the number of words he needed to spell out completely by adding word-prediction technology that is used in smartphones. It also sped up common tasks such as opening a document or browsing the Web.
While the current platform is tailored to Hawking, Nachman says it should be easy to adapt for others by making the word-prediction software more conversational and expanding the motion-sensing capabilities to detect movements beyond a twitch of the cheek, which is how Hawking controls the system. Her team is now working on a facial-gesture recognition tool so that users can, for example, choose an application or open a new document using various facial expressions.
A Wheelchair That Adjusts to its Environment
Mahesh Krishnamurthy, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, created a low-cost, power-assisted wheelchair that could sense its surroundings and would be simple to operate. Krishnamurthy began with a widely used conventional manual chair and added an electric power boost. He then combined a classic motor control method with a novel approach that lets the wheelchair adapt to the driving conditions.
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