Last weekend at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, Georgia Tech unveiled a Tongue Drive System which works with an iPod or iPhone to control electric wheelchairs and computers. The system uses a specialized dental retainer with embedded magnets to send wireless signals to an iPhone or iPod specially programmed to operate the wheelchair.

Tongue Drive Commands

Testing is being done on seven sensor areas.

Currently seven basic sensors are being tested to control wheelchair movement and computer commands. However, many more sensors are expected to be added in the future. Future sensors could even be programmed to perform specific functions for each user.

Tongue Drive Retainer

The retainer has a rechargeable lithium battery and custom fit for user comfort.

An ongoing trial with 11 volunteers has shown great promise. “During the trials, users have been able to learn to use the system, move the computer cursor quicker and with more accuracy, and maneuver through the obstacle course faster and with fewer collisions,” said Maysam Ghovanloo, associate professor of computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.“We expect even better results in the future when trial participants begin to use the intraoral Tongue Drive System on a daily basis,” he said.

Clinical Trial

Cruise Bogle, a participant in the clinical trial, moves his tongue to direct the powered wheelchair around the obstacle course. (Image credit: Gary Meek)

The first trials used a headset with a tongue magnet which tended to shift, needing frequent calibration. The new study participants have voluntarily had their tongues pierced and wear a special stud with a magnetic top and the retainer, which is not only more comfortable but discreet as well.

Ghovanloo and his team designed a specialized framework to attach the Tongue Drive System components to a standard electric wheelchair. The framework not only holds the iPhone while charging it, it also receives the wireless data and delivers it to the iPhone. It even includes a container to hold the retainer at night for charging.

Currently a sip-and-puff system offers quadriplegics an awkward and bulky mechanism to control their wheelchairs. Many users consider the straw to be a symbol of their disability and welcome a more discreet method of mobility.

We can see the amazing potential the Tongue Drive System has. Perhaps future sensors will be able to activate Siri or control other electronic assistants that will provide even more independence for those who rely on a wheelchair. We applaud Georgia Tech for this amazing and dignified invention.