Biometric Devices: The Story Behind Stephen Hawking’s Voice
We posted an article a couple weeks ago about the possibility of eye tracking technology being used to help professor Stephen Hawking communicate. Living with ALS, the world-renowned physicist suffers from almost complete paralysis, except for some remaining facial muscle control. Without the aid of assistive communication technology, his fascinating theories on the universe may have been trapped in his mind forever. Given the complexity of his area of expertise and the content of his published works, you will be surprised at how antiquated his methods of communication actually are.
Hawking had a tracheotomy 1985 that eliminated his ability to communicate verbally. A software program was developed by Walter Woltosz that gave Hawking the ability to spell words using a button he could click with his hand. This program, called Equalizer, uses a very simple interface that scans through the alphabet and allows each letter to be selected one by one –first by choosing a section of the alphabet, then a row in that section, then the individual letter in that row. Using this technique, Hawking wrote his books, essays, and lectures at a painstaking 4 words per minute!
A huge leap forward for Hawking occurred when David Mason developed a system using the components of a 1980s telephone answering system to convert the text Hawking types using Equalizer into synthesized speech. The voice sounds very robotic, but it has become somewhat of a signature for Hawking. According to Hawking’s assistant, Sam Blackburn, “He could have a voice that is more realistic and more easy to understand and would use less power and wouldn’t break so often, but the one he has is recognized all over the world, and it’s the one he wants to keep.”
In fact, the only real modification that the system has seen has been Hawking’s transition to a cheek switch instead of a hand-powered button to control the Equalizer program after losing the function of his hands. The cheek switch, created by Blackburn, uses an IR sensor to detect intentional facial twitches to signal a click. It will be the eventual loss of this muscle control that may lead to the necessity of an eye tracking device to control the Equalizer program Hawking is so reluctant to give up. Hopefully, the old and the new will come together to create something that will permit Hawking to continue his work for many years to come.
How Does Stephen Hawking Talk? (video)
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