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Tongue-controlled wheelchair could offer a faster way for quadriplegics to get around

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tongue control wheelchair (Gary Meek)
tongue control wheelchair (Gary Meek)

Researchers are developing a method for quadriplegics to control wheelchairs and mouse cursors using only the movement of their tongue, and it's turning out to be far more effective than one of the most popular current control schemes. Researchers from Georgia Tech have been working on a tongue-based control system since 2005, and in their latest trial runs, they're finding that it's a significantly more accurate way to issue commands than one existing and popular method. "It's really easy to understand what the Tongue Drive System can do and what it is good for," Maysam Ghovanloo, the research's principal investigator, says in a statement. "Now, we have solid proof that people with disabilities can potentially benefit from it."

Three times faster with the same accuracy

The researchers' findings are being published today in Science Translational Medicine. All of the findings suggest that their Tongue Drive System (TDS) far outperforms the popular sip-and-puff system, which requires inhaling and exhaling into a tube. After several sessions, 11 test users with quadriplegia were able to maneuver their wheelchairs around three times faster than they could when using sip-and-puff, even while achieving the same accuracy. The same result was found when testing how well tongue-control could be used for accessing a computer, and a similar result was found when having users navigate a mouse cursor through an on-screen maze. Though there was a learning curve, the researchers found that accuracy improved quickly when using tongue control.

"We saw a huge, very significant improvement in their performance from session one to session two," Ghovanloo said in a statement. "That's an indicator of how quickly people learn this."

TDS is controlled by a small, magnetic tongue piercing. Right now, an external headset is used to detect how the magnet is moved about within the mouth, but a new method is in development that will sense its movement on a retainer-like device with embedded sensors. Both the headset and mouthpiece work by sending the data to a computer — in this case, an iPod — which translates it into directions for the wheelchair or mouse cursor. Though there are a number of other systems that can be used to issue such commands using just the head, Ghovanloo says that one major advantage of TDS is that when paired with the mouthpiece, no one can tell that any device is in use. "Having it hidden inside the mouth is a big, big plus," Ghovanloo tells The Verge. "It totally eliminates any risk of stigma."

The real goal is convincing insurance companies that tongue control is useful

The goal of these latest tests isn't simply to prove that TDS works: it's to help them eventually convince insurance companies that it's a useful alternative. "A lot of individuals who would be the end users of this technology may not be able to afford it off of their budget," Ghovanloo says. "We need to make sure that their insurance company reimburses them for this technology either partially or completely." Though Ghovanloo's research has been academic so far, he's recently started a company called Bionic Sciences to bring the technology to market. He expects that it will be available in 2015, but warns that regulatory processes could slow that down.

Ghovanloo is excited about the results, but mostly, he says that he's happy to see this technology getting closer and closer to being put to use. "At the end of the day," Ghovanloo says, "what really matters to me — and what I'd like to happen — is seeing [TDS] used by potential end users, used by people with [quadriplegia], and used by people who can benefit from it in their daily lives."