For people with disabilities that affect their ability to speak, communicating with others can be very difficult. A new device known as Talk, however, is designed to help such people to do so. It senses dots and dashes made by the person using their breath, in order to spell out words.
Talk was produced for the Google Science Fair, and is one of the regional finalists from the Asia Pacific and Japan section in the 15-16 age group. It also is up for two additional awards within the Science Fair. The inventor of the device, 16 year-old Arsh Shah Dilbagi, says he believes it is the only augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to use breath as an input, that it is the most affordable AAC device available, and that it has the fastest speaking rate of any AAC device.
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The Google Science Fair is a science and technology competition open to individuals and teams from ages 13 to 18 years old. It seeks to find projects that have the potential to change the world. Viewing the submissions of the young entrants will fill you with a mixed sense of inadequacy, resigned awe and hope for humanity. Many of them display the kind of lateral thinking long since ground out of adults.
Talk is no different. Conscious that AAC devices can be costly, slow and bulky, Dilbagi set himself the task of improving upon existing products. The design, he felt, should be generic, affordable, faster than comparable devices, portable and should consume less power.
"After quite some research, I hypothesized that a pressure sensor can be used to monitor variations in breath and generate two distinguishable signals," explains Dilbagi in his project description. "These signals can be further processed as a binary language and synthesized into speech accordingly."
Dilbagi decided to go forward with his idea of using breath as an input, having found that it was the means that was controllable by the highest proportion of people. A MEMS microphone was found to be sensitive enough to recognize the different breath types, and Dilbagi chose International Morse Code as the device language because it allows the users to dictate words words with the fewest required signals.
An algorithm is used to distinguish between short and long exhales and a computing engine is used to synthesize the inputted words into speech. Dilbagi opted against using a display in conjunction with the device to ensure it remained simple and portable.
Talk was tested amongst family and friends, before being tested successfully with a speech issue sufferer. In his own controlled tests, Dilbagi found that the device had a near 100 percent accuracy level.
The final design comprises a combined lightweight metal ear-clip and microphone. The microphone can be placed in front of the user's nose or mouth depending on what they find most comfortable. It can be used in communication mode for spelling out words, or command mode for triggering predefined words with abbreviated forms (such as "W" for "water"). An accompanying piece of software helps users to learn how to use the device and what the different Morse Code signals are.
Dilbagi is raising money for its production on Indiegogo where, if the campaign is successful, individuals can secure a Talk ear-clip for US$99. He will find out if his project is a global finalist in the Google Science Fair in August.