LipSync Helps Paralyzed People Use Computers and Mobile Devices

The Neil Squire Society and the Google Foundation developed the mouth-controlled joystick

14 September 2017

For people who are paralyzed or have mobility issues due to injury or illnesses, using a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen can be difficult, if not impossible. And computer interfaces designed for them can be prohibitively expensive.

Giving people with disabilities better access to the world around them is the aim of the Neil Squire Society, a nonprofit in Burnaby, B.C., Canada. The organization is named after a man who became paralyzed in the early 1980s from injuries he suffered in a car accident. To help him communicate, Squire’s cousin, an engineer, connected an Apple 2E computer to a Morse code transmitter that Squire could control using “sip and puff” technology, which sends electrical signals by sipping and puffing on a tube. The device became known as the Joust.

Last year the society teamed up with the Google Foundation to build a more advanced version of Joust: the LipSync, a joystick that allows a person to control a computer cursor with minimal head and neck movements. A hollow mouthpiece is attached to a sensor on the joystick that requires only slight pressure to move a cursor on a computer screen. Users can “click” the left and right mouse buttons by inhaling or exhaling into the mouthpiece.

“While similar solutions exist for desktop computers, they can cost up to US $1,500 and do not work well on mobile devices,” says Chad Leaman, the society’s director of innovation. He’s also the  founder of its Makers Making Change initiative, which connects tinkerers with people who have disabilities and need assistive technologies.

“What makes the LipSync unique is that we are releasing it open-source, so it can be built for about $300 worth of parts by anyone who wants to volunteer their time to put the unit together.”

Leaman gave a presentation about Makers Making Change at this year’s CSUN (California State University, Northridge) Assistive Technology Conference, which The Institute attended. Recently the Makers Making Change group released a number of other low-tech assistive technologies that can be made with a 3D printer, including tools to help people with limited use of their hands hold pens, turn keys in locks, and open bottles.

HACKING FOR GOOD

Makers Making Change has held hackathons throughout the year in which students and other makers help build the LipSyncs. The organization sends engineers to the events to guide the participants through the building process. They provide instructions as well as 3D printers and soldering irons as needed. The LipSyncs are then donated to rehabilitation centers, disability organizations, or directly to those in need.

At the society’s first hackathon, held in January in Vancouver, volunteers built a system that could help a paralyzed man alert his wife, who is hard of hearing, if he’s in distress. The LipSync connected with a vibrating alarm outfitted with flashing lights that could alert her even if she’s sleeping.

The society recently held a make-a-thon in partnership with TOM:Alberta and the University of Calgary. The participants, including a team of IEEE student members, built more than 20 LipSyncs during the weekend. Events also were held in June in Philadelphia and Seattle as part of the National Week of Making.

“This year alone, with the help of the maker community, we’ve built 150 LipSync devices,” Leaman says. “Our goal is to build 1,500 more over the next year and a half. We need engineers and students across Canada and the United States to help bring the device into their communities.”

For more information on how to make LipSyncs or other open-source assistive technologies, visit the Makers Making Change website.

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