It sounds like something out of science fiction, but a new technology is allowing individuals with disabilities to communicate using their brainwaves. This development comes thanks to Smartstones’ new mobile sensory speech app, which can be connected to an EEG headset that lets individuals reach out to others via ‘thought messages.’
I met with Andreas Forsland, the founder and CEO of Smartstones, last week at the 2016 Edison Awards. There, Forsland explained exactly what this technology is, how it works, and the power that it has to transform the way that individuals communicate.
When asked about the origins of Smartstones, Forsland notes that the idea began with his mother…and with something known as a Hopestone.
“My mom had pneumonia in the ICU,” he begins, “and she was intubated on a ventilator, so she couldn’t speak and had very limited mobility. She was really kind of locked in her mind, and when you have a fairly serious illness, you really just need comfort and to know that somebody is there.” And that simple desire—to have the ability to know when someone was in need of comfort or company—is what pushed Forsland to pursue this path.
“I envisioned something that was very simple, very rudimentary, that you could just rub in order to send a text message to let someone know that you are active and awake,” Forsland clarifies. “And if it had a shock like a strong motion, like she dropped it or shook it, it would send a signal to come now.” In this regard, the first intimation of the device was a very elementary system with just two main messages: “I am awake” and “Come now.”
And that is how the Hopestone, later renamed Touchstone, was born.
Forsland continues by noting that the idea quickly grew from there, with people from a host of different communities reaching out. “We started to build the prototype and do market testing, and a lot of parents with children with autism and folks with ALS were coming to us, and they were saying ‘Hey, can this help me? My husband just lost his voice and he’s losing his other functions. I still want to be able to engage. Can this help?’”
That, Forsland asserts, is when he realized that the software was more important than the hardware.
The problem with current technology, according to Forsland, is that it is hard (if not impossible) to tailor it to each individual and their specific needs. “What I learned from talking with a number of people with different kinds of disabilities is that the user interface is the biggest impediment. The reason why some technologies completely fail is that users can’t physically use the interface. So when we looked at this, I thought, ‘Great! Let’s use our software as a communications platform for people who can’t talk and develop partnerships with sensory hardware companies that can use their sensors as outputs, like a remote control, for the app.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
From there, the idea evolved dramatically, ultimately moving from the simple stone and transforming into as a sensory platform that can meet the needs of people from a host of differing communities. Using brainwave commands and a wireless connected EEG headset, which was developed by Emotiv, the technology can now send a “thought message” to anyone via a push notification (in-app SMS).
Forsland explains, “So as our Smartstone is like a remote control for prose using touch gestures and motion gestures, we’ve now partnered with Emotiv who makes an EEG headset that can record brain wave patterns, and we can assign those brain wave patterns as commands for the app.”
Notably, the technology is able to recognize a number of different thought patterns, and the device can even recognize facial patterns, such as smiles, blinks, sideways glances, and so on.
In order to start on the system, individuals work with someone who is familiar with the technology, and they focus on one or two key commands. Once they have mastered sending those communications, they can advance and add a host of others. In this respect, Forsland notes, “It’s like going to the gym.” You get more adept and efficient as you continue to practice.
Of course, communication devices for those with disabilities have existed for quite some time, and to that end, Forsland asserts that the goal is really to work with others in order to create more communication options for individuals—to better meet the needs of this diverse array of people.
Forsland concludes, “If you think about a room like a day program, where you have people who are sitting there just locked in…imagine a future where these people can have a laptop next to them, and they are literally saying things and having a conversation with someone else who can’t speak. That’s a future that I believe in. “
Neither Futurism nor the author of this article received monetary compensation (or any other form of compensation) in exchange for writing this piece. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.