Happy Birthday Stephen Hawking! Although Dr. Hawking has been paralyzed for decades by Lou Gehrig’s disease, it hasn’t stopped him from continuing his research into uncovering the secrets of the cosmos and earning the title as one of the world’s top scientists. And since 1997, one of Hawking’s many birthday gifts have come from Intel; every few years, Intel builds Dr. Hawking a custom-made computer that helps him communicate with the world.
When Hawking turned 71 on January 8th, Intel announced the company will develop a new system that will give him the ability to communicate faster, even as his disease progresses. Hawkings controls his current computer through cheek movements; the movement triggers an infrared switch attached to his glasses that allows him to select the characters of individual words on a screen in front of him. The process allows Hawkings to create a word a letter at a time, which is inefficient even with an iPhone-like autocomplete feature. Once he has constructed a sentence at about one word per minute, a digital voice synthesizer can speak it for him, allowing him to give lectures and talks.
Hawking recently reached out to Intel to develop a more efficient way to talk, and CTO Justin Rattner jumped on the case with Intel’s latest gesture and facial-recognition technology. Showcased at CES earlier this month, Intel’s perceptual computing initiative is developing new ways to interact with computers using speech, eye-tracking, gestures and facial expressions.
By measuring Hawking’s mouth and eyebrow movements, as well as using intensive facial recognition and a better word predictor, Rattner hopes to increase Hawking’s language composition speed up to ten times its current pace.
Once developed, Hawking’s computer will be an example of the cutting edge assistive tech that is central to the future of computing. Devices are increasingly becoming more natural to use, and Intel’s perceptual computing initiative is at the forefront of this trend. While beneficial to everyone, the increasingly easy to use tech will be especially exciting for the elderly and disabled, who may not have the full range of motion currently required to operate modern devices.
An excellent example of how this technology is currently being deployed can be seen in the EyeWriter, a pair of glasses that track eye movement (pictured below). Tony Quan, (aka TEMPT ONE) an LA based graffiti writer, was also paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease, but like Dr. Hawking, still has a passion for his work.
Using a prototype EyeWriter, Quan was able to write his tag for the first time in 5 years ago in 2009, and his story was recently turned into a documentary. The EyeWriter has helped numerous other disabled individuals, as anyone can find instructions to build the low-cost device on the Internet. For its simplicity and DIY accessibility, Time named the EyeWriter one of the best inventions of 2010.
Watch TEMPT ONE use the EyeWriter below:
However, in order to truly be ‘natural’ in their use, future gadgets will have to develop to the point where they are nearly invisible and unobtrusive. By recording past actions, monitoring ambient environment, social networks, Internet behavior, calendars and other sources of a person’s daily information, an assistive device will not need any human input at all – rather, it will anticipate our needs based on context and the history of the above inputs. Then, hopefully, brilliant minds like Dr. Hawking’s will be that much more free to express themselves without physical limitations.