ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects neurons in the brain and spinal cord causing rapid loss of motor control. Those who are diagnosed often face total paralysis within 5 years. Not only can they not physically move, but they cannot talk either. Communication becomes a massive issue for day-to-day life, but also for the psychological isolation that can result from the inability to communicate with those around you.
There have been technologies created to help, but they are often inaccessible to many due to cost or complexity. For example, Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer.
The ALS Association, in partnership with Prize4Life, is launching a challenge to foster innovation in the area of communication for those with ALS and has $500,000 in funds to invest in making these projects happen. If you or a team would like to participate, you’ll have to get a brief study outline and proposal submitted by November 9th.
With the incredibly intelligent and talented people I see every day on Make:, combined with the easily accessible sensors and prototyping systems available, I think our community has a great chance of providing some new and interesting solutions.
Of course, you may be thinking: “I want to help, but I have no idea what is needed!” To that end, I’ve included 3 examples of things people have built to assist in communication with those suffering from ALS.
Letter boards are probably the most widespread example of a DIY communication device. You can print one out on a standard printer. The problem with letter boards are that they are slow and require a lot of guess work and intuition from a helper.
Laser pointers and word boards
A word board is similar to a letter board, but also contains common words and phrases. This is another very common DIY communication device used for ALS, because it is cheap to implement. Taping a laser to to a pair of glasses allows a patient to point out words and letters from a further distance and with more precision. This is nice because word boards can get pretty big. However, word boards still only facilitate communication in person, from patient to another person. A person can’t use a word board, for example, to send an email.
This DIY eye tracker, called the Eyewriter, gives similar results to a commercial system for eye tracking. The main benefit of this system, aside from its low cost, is that it connects the patient to a computer allowing for remote communication like email or chat.