With today’s advanced technology, engineers and experts are able to do just about anything to a wheelchair. They can develop and transform chairs into something better for them to become more useful to the users; and some of the high tech chairs created are the carbon fibre wheelchair, the mind-controlled wheelchair, and the eye-maneuvered wheelchair which amazed a lot of people around the world. Today, another high tech mobility device is being developed – the tongue-driven wheelchair.
A team of electrical engineers in Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a device that will open a new door of possibility to the community of wheelchair users. The technological device, in the form of a dental retainer containing several sensors, is designed to enable individuals with severe spinal cord injuries to control or maneuver an electric wheelchair using their tongue.
For the Tongue Drive System to work, a tongue stud with a very small magnet embedded in the upper ball is pierced into the tongue of the user. A high tech dental retainer is then placed against the roof of the mouth or the hard palate. Magnetic field detectors or sensors are embedded onto the device and are mounted on both upper and lower corners of the mouth to detect or track the movement and location of the magnet in the stud.
A lithium-ion battery powers the mouth device and an induction coil is used to recharge it. A water resistant material is utilized in order to protect the retainer from saliva and other liquid that passes through the mouth.
The team also made sure that the users do not experience discomfort and other disturbances when wearing the dental device, so they moulded or shaped it from dental impressions for it to fit perfectly to the person’s teeth. Clasps are also added to help hold the retainer in place.
The movements detected or the signals collected by the sensors are transmitted wirelessly to an iPhone or iPod touch. A special software is installed on the Apple device with the capability of working out the position or location of the tongue stud magnet with respect to the order of arrangement of the sensors. The software is also able to interpret the commands of the user. The output signals and other related information are used as a substitute or replacement for the joystick function in the electric wheelchair.
A universal interface is also created by the team for the intra-oral high tech appliance that connects to a standard battery-powered wheelchair. The interface is designed to do the following:
- Hold the Apple device used (iPod touch or iPhone)
- Receive the signals and data wirelessly and transmit it to the Apple device
- Charge the dental retainer
- Feature a special container that holds the retainer, allowing the user to leave the device there overnight for charging
At the moment, the team is busy improving the prototype. They are planning to test it first to an able-bodied individual before evaluating the usability of the Tongue Drive System to people with spinal cord injuries.