Facial sensors and software to help Hawking communicate faster

January 21, 2013

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Intel is developing communication technology that can quickly process and respond to signals Stephen Hawking sends from the few muscles in his body that he can still control, Scientific American reports.

Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner noted that Hawking can make a number of facial expressions that might be used to speed up the rate at which the physicist conveys his thoughts. Even providing Hawking with two inputs would give him the ability to communicate using Morse code, “which would be a great improvement,” said Rattner.

For the past decade Hawking has used a voluntary twitch of his cheek muscle to compose words and sentences one letter at a time that are expressed through a speech-generation device connected to his computer. Each tweak stops a cursor that continuously scans text on a screen facing the scientist, achieving a mere one word per minute.

Intel’s new system will use Hawking’s cheek twitch as well as mouth and eyebrow movements to provide signals to his computer. “We’ve built a new, character-driven interface … that includes a better word predictor,” Rattner said. The company is also exploring the use of facial-recognition software.

Intel’s overall plan for identifying personal context requires a combination of hardware sensors — camera, accelerometer, microphone, thermometer and others — with software that can check one’s personal calendar, social networks, and Internet browsing habits, to name a few. “We use this [information] to reason your current context and what’s important at any given time [and deliver] pervasive assistance,” Rattner said.