Finding new ways to increase inclusivity and accessibility is important because more than one billion people in the world live with disabilities, according to the World Health Organization. One in seven US adults has a disability that affects their mobility, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with mobility impairments may need help typing, scrolling, or playing games. These disabilities can affect a person’s ability to work, connect with others socially or romantically, or enjoy their electronic devices.
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However, Corten Singer and Tomás Vega, co-founders of Augmental, a spinoff of the MIT Media Lab, are determined to give people with disabilities more control – and that’s where a new technology in help called MouthPad can have a great effect.
The MouthPad allows users to control their electronic devices with their tongues. The MouthPad is similar to a plastic retainer, like Invisalign, and contains a trackpad, pressure sensor, battery, charging coil, and Bluetooth chip.
Historically, assistive technology has been limited to eye-tracking devices, mouth-controlled joysticks, and voice-to-text applications. But Vega says these technologies are old, bulky, and inefficient.
“Computers allow us to create, learn, share, express, and connect with others. Computers are amazing not because of the intelligence they provide but because they are easy to control — for you and for me,” said Vega. “But for those with severe hand disabilities, it’s not easy; it’s actually difficult because they rely on old interfaces that don’t express.”
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The MouthPad offers something different. The technology fits in the user’s mouth and connects to their device via Bluetooth. When the MouthPad is inserted, users are able to speak and close their mouths, eliminating the bulky and sometimes uncomfortable behaviors associated with mouth-controlled joysticks.
Singer is concerned that people with disabilities are sometimes excluded from elements of society because they don’t have the same access to technology. However, he believes that the tools he developed at Augmental will help improve inclusivity.
“In our society, in the past, if you had a physical disability, it was almost impossible to interact with social institutions and be a contributing member of the community because you didn’t have access,” Singer said. . “But now, there’s no excuse to exclude people. We have all the technology we need to make equal access possible.”
Singer and Vega acknowledge that the MouthPad works best when paired with speech technology, and the device is not intended to replace existing and well-functioning assistive tech. However, the device can be used without sound if the user is in a situation where they want to be cautious.
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To receive a MouthPad device, interested parties must first join the waitlist. After that, they will receive equipment to complete a dental scan, so that Augmental can visualize the contents of their mouth. The MouthPad is a bespoke device, meaning its design is adapted to the user’s oral anatomy.
Singer and Vega focused on the tongue as a means of controlling an electronic device because of its agility, precision, stability, and its ability to produce complex sounds and movements. The human tongue is a unique combination of eight different muscles and structures similar to the trunk of an elephant or the tentacles of an octopus.
“We liken the tongue to the eleventh finger,” Singer said.
An important nerve in the human brain controls the tongue, and much of the control of the tongue is innate and serves an important evolutionary and survival purpose. Using the seemingly infinite strength of the tongue means that the user will not need breaks from using the MouthPad until the device’s battery dies.
“I’m talking now, and I’m moving my tongue in fast and precise ways, and I don’t have to think about it,” Vega said. “There are a lot of different configurations of the tongue, and our goal is to use the intrinsic dexterity of the tongue and create an expressive, natural, and low-effort interface.”
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Krystina Wray Jackson uses a MouthPad when creating graphic art at work. Jackson says that doing things like controlling their TV, checking emails, and creating art has been made easier and more fun since using technology.
“MouthPad has quickly become an essential part of my daily life,” says Jackson. “It’s hard to imagine life before the device.”
Jackson said that voice-controlled technologies, such as Siri and Alexa, are less flexible and convenient than the MouthPad. Sometimes, Jackson travels by car or plane and doesn’t want to say a voice command out loud. The MouthPad alleviates this issue by helping to maintain privacy without giving up control of the device.
Currently, Singer and Vega’s company, Augmental, must complete FCC certification before it can sell and ship the devices. So, the details surrounding the device’s price and widespread availability are unclear.