With exception of a new voice in 2004, Stephen Hawking's input interface has remained much the same for decades. Now Intel has created a new system called the Assistive Context Aware Toolkit (ACAT) that allows him to carry out tasks much faster than before.

Intel has sponsored and provided Hawking's communications system since 1997. Historically it has comprised a computer running a variety of different pieces of software. Text input and cursor control was carried out using the Words Plus application EZ Keys, with selections made using a cheek movement sensor mounted on his glasses.

With EZ Keys, Hawking has been able to use standard applications for his day-to-day work, such as Eudora for sending and receiving emails. Another piece of software written by Word Plus, called Equalizer, is used for synthesizing typed sentences into speech.

According to Intel, it has been working closely with Hawking for three years to develop a system to replace his existing setup. The ACAT is designed not only to help make his own communication easier, but can also be tailored for use by other individuals suffering from conditions such as motor neuron diseases and quadriplegia.

"Professor Hawking uniquely used technology to master communicating with the world for decades, but his old system could be likened to trying to use today's modern apps and websites with a computer without a keyboard or mouse," says Intel vice president and Intel Labs managing director Wen-Hann Wang. "Together we've delivered a holistically better communication experience that contributes to his continued independence and can help open the door to increased independence for others."

Hawking's existing cheek sensor is used to detect the selection of onscreen characters, but the typing process has been improved by the integration of SwiftKey technology. Best known as the popular smartphone keyboard, SwiftKey has been able to double the speed of Hawking's typing by better predicting what he's likely to say and allowing him to input less than 20 percent of all characters.

Elsewhere, the task of switching between his communications software and other applications has been made more efficient. Instead of having to manually navigate between windows, the process has now been automated, allowing tasks to be carried out up to ten times faster than previously.

ACAT can be customized for use with touch, eye blinks, eyebrow movements or other inputs. Hawking and Intel expect other solutions to be created using the toolkit. It will be made available from January next year and will be free to use.

In the video below, Hawking discusses his use of technology for communication.

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