Penn State Students Develop True Voice Technology

Assistive technology for people with communication disorders has come a long way in recent years, but current technology— such as tablet apps used to communicate — is limited in that it does not allow users to clearly convey tone of voice, mood or individual personality.

Undergraduate engineering students at Penn State and in South Africa are working to eliminate that communication barrier and will unveil the results of their efforts at the Learning Factory College of Engineering Design Showcase at 1 p.m. Thursday, April 28, at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication — created through a $5 million federal grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to Penn State and partner institutions — asked engineering students to develop assistive technologies that give a true voice to people with communicative disorders related to autism, stroke, traumatic brain injury, ALS, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

Fourteen Penn State students have been working throughout the semester to answer the request. David McNaughton, a professor of special education with a dual appointment in communication sciences and disorders, is mentoring students leading up to the showcase.

“This project helps create a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, so whatever work these students go into, hopefully, that awareness will play a role in their designs,” McNaughton said. “Ultimately, this process allows students to better understand the needs of people with disabilities and gets them to think about how technology can play a vital role.”
Students also met regularly with Godfrey Nazareth, a biomedical engineer with ALS who works on RERC on AAC projects, to ensure that their technical development work addresses the needs of persons with disabilities.

Engineering designs for the greater good

Each semester, as part of the Learning Factory, engineering students take on different projects, many offered by corporations seeking innovations for products. There are more than 100 projects underway this semester.

Andrew M. “Mike” Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development and instructor of engineering science and mechanics, is the instructor for the five projects this semester, including the one developing assistive communication technologies.

“This is one of the most fascinating projects we have had, with a tremendous potential to improve communication capabilities for people with disabilities,” Erdman said. “Such opportunities to apply engineering skills to solve fundamental human needs energize our students and encourage them to continue to apply their technical abilities to improving the human condition.”
Matthew Vincent, a senior who is studying mechanical engineering, said this experience has introduced his team to assistive technologies.

“The background knowledge on assistive technologies that we had before this project was very little,” Vincent said. “Getting to learn about new technologies and ways to help people who rely on assistive technology has been a great process. The learning curve is always something challenging when it comes to something you don’t have much knowledge about, but it challenges you and it makes you a better engineer.”

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