A Helping Hand

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Five-year-old Anna Magliano cannot efficiently operate a computer, use a telephone, or play with her toys on her own. Her lungs need to be cleared of fluid five times a day, on a good day; on a bad day, it’s 20 times. Paralyzed in a car accident at age 2, she has no movement below her neck, and breathes through a ventilator. Her parents wondered how she would perform in school without the proper technology helping her to accomplish even the most basic daily tasks.

Michael Darish, an electrical engineering student at the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell campus, faced each of these challenges, and a few other unanticipated ones, when he set out to design a speech-powered solution that would allow Anna to click and drag a cursor on her computer.

In addition to Anna’s disability, Darish also had to take into account the facts that Anna could not yet read and only speaks Italian. As Anna lives with her family in Turin, Italy, and Darish lives in Andover, Mass., distance was another factor.

Though both of Anna’s parents are electrical engineers, neither was able to find a proper solution to their daughter’s computer problems. They scoured the Internet for help, and their search eventually led them to UMass’ Assistive Technology Program. UMass professors Donald Clark, founder and coordinator of the program, and Alan Rux, technical support associate, took up the call and made it one of the approximately 60 assistive technology projects that senior electrical engineering students at the university complete each year as a graduate requirement. These projects, which are supposed to improve the quality of life for physically or mentally disabled individuals, are delivered at no cost to the recipients. Clark and Rux field hundreds of these requests each year from local social service agencies, hospitals, schools, and over the Internet. They present these requests to students at the start of their senior year and allow them to pick their own projects.

Darish was sold on the Maglianos’ request immediately, and in the course of his work, became even more dedicated to the project. He completed his lab assignments for the application two weeks early, while conducting research to find solutions for any roadblocks that he might encounter along the way.

At age 46, Darish had spent years as a mechanic, but had no formal training in electrical engineering when he went back to school for his bachelor’s degree. "I had never done anything with voice, so this was something interesting to me," says Darish, who is now 50. "I was hooked."

Because the application had to be language-independent—operable in both English and Italian, Darish found a chip that recognizes voice patterns rather than specific languages. The chip, which Darish calls the "heart and brain of the system," could convert Anna’s spoken words from analog to digital format. The chip connects to a microphone, into which Anna’s voice signal undergoes a digital conversion. The end result takes form as a hexadecimal number that corresponds to a particular computer function.

"This [number] gets stored into memory," Darish explains. "And when you’re doing training or when you’re in running mode, the chip will recognize the code. There’s a display showing you the hexadecimal number corresponding to the function you’re trying to do."

The equipment is housed in a compact box that is about the size of a small toaster oven and contains its own microprocessor. This sets it apart from similar technologies, which typically are housed on a separate desktop computer.

Previously, Anna operated her computer with a tiny infrared camera placed on the end of her nose. Using head movements, she could direct a reflective dot across the screen. Anna’s father, Andrea, "loved the way the device moved the cursor around the screen," Darish says, but complained that Anna didn’t have enough control over the device. Using voice commands, Anna is now able to accomplish tasks with greater ease.

Still, Darish made sure he ran tests using various voices—both male and female, and high-pitched and low-pitched—during development. In addition, Anna’s father sent him samples of Anna’s voice as audio files to test with the program.

In total, Darish spent roughly a year, working almost seven days a week, completing the project. He delivered the finished product in person to the family’s home in Italy during spring break in March. "At first she was a little shy and standoffish," Darish explains. "All she knew was a man from the U.S. was coming to give her a present, but she had no idea what it was."

During the week that Darish spent with Anna, he devoted an hour or two every day to introducing Anna to the device he’d designed, adjusting the software as he went along. In addition to the computer equipment, he also brought a few voice-activated toys and a device to help her use the telephone.

After Anna spent a few days with the toys, Darish showed her a voice-activated dancing bear program he created for the computer. After that, he says she was more engaged and willing to use the computer equipment. In fact, within an hour Anna was using the computer independently, playing a computer game that involved picking up balls and putting them into a box on the screen.

"The first time I saw her cry when she had to go to bed after playing with the device, that’s when I knew this was good," Darish says.

Darish, who went back to UMass this fall to complete his master’s degree in electrical engineering, says that Anna helped him find his niche after about 20 years of bouncing around jobs. He plans to continue his studies with a focus on assistive technologies.

"I always knew I was destined to do something, but I never knew what it was," Darish states. "Doing this project certainly was something I was supposed to do."

Darish plans to continue developing and perfecting things for Anna, and one day hopes to convert his work with Anna into a marketable device for the general public. Until then, he’s content working for Anna. "I just can’t let it go," he says. 

Assistive Technologies in the Mix

Students in the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s electrical engineering program defy the usual perception of engineers. Rather than using their skills to create commercial power systems or circuits, they help people with disabilities live more independent and fulfilling lives through assistive devices.

The school’s Assistive Technologies Program (ATP) connects seniors in the electrical engineering program with clients in schools, assisted living centers, and hospitals. As a requirement for graduation, these students must complete a project to benefit the disabled. Past projects include a voice-activated alarm clock and digital voice boxes.

This year, in addition to Michael Darish’s project, 27 other students also contributed projects tailored for clients with physical, developmental, or sensory disabilities. The students met with their clients at the beginning of the school year and stayed in touch with them throughout the project to make any refinements as needed.

Several of this year’s projects use speech-related technologies to give nonverbal users the ability to communicate with others via synthesized or prerecorded speech or to allow those with limited mobility to interact with electronic devices through voice commands.

One such project, Amuse-Sing, designed by Pichetrathanak Chim, will help a young girl with autism build up her verbal skills. Hidden by a teddy bear exterior, the circuits in Amuse-Sing prompt the bear to dance and play music when the girl correctly answers a song selection through a spoken response.

A similar project, called Hands Down, Sit Up Straight, was designed by Shawn Garvey to provide spoken guidance to autistic students who have trouble sitting upright. Using a proximity sensor that detects arm motion and tilt angle, the device plays a prerecorded message when a student has bad posture, reminding him to sit appropriately.

Other speech-related projects this year include:
• The Non-Verbal Communication Response System, designed by Chansophan Sim, is a portable electronic device that can be programmed to relay prerecorded audio messages with six push-down buttons. The system will help people with limited speech capabilities communicate their needs to caregivers.
• Portable Touch Screen Communication, designed by Matthew Johnsen, uses an LCD and touch screen to allow the user to pick prerecorded messages to play through the device’s speaker.
• The Voice-Activated LED Box, designed by Alex Alanoly, is a learning and entertainment tool that uses prerecorded voice commands to turn on colored lights. The device is speaker-independent.
• The Voice-Activated Remote Control (VARC), designed by Shakir Iqbal, enables people with severe physical disabilities to control the television set via voice commands.
• The User-Defined, Four-Object Compartment Communicator (UDFOCC), designed by Roberto Morales, enables nonverbal and blind people to communicate with others through prerecorded words or phrases, each up to five seconds in length, that can be accessed with the push of a button.

The Assistive Technology Program, which is in its 16th year of operation, has proved a successful means for giving a human face to a highly technical field, and has garnered nationwide recognition for the university’s electrical engineering program. Program director
Donald Clark has received such awards as the President’s Award for Public Service and The Daily Points of Light Award, for which he was nominated by President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton. —L.S.

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