Thanks to Georgia Tech, a tongue piercing could soon control a wheelchair

This new system would replace sip-and-puff wheelchairs, making movement easier and faster

Illustration by Jason Lee

Most people who are quadriplegics use sip-and-puff wheelchairs; they blow or suck into a straw to direct their chairs. But movement is limited to left, right, forward, and backward. New technology developed by a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology would allow quadriplegics to use tongue-controlled devices to command not only wheelchairs, but also computers, phones, and video games. We talked with Georgia Tech associate professor Maysam Ghovanloo, director of the GT bionics lab behind the research.

Where did the idea develop?
I have been working on assistive technologies for twenty years. All of the projects in the Georgia Tech bionics lab are in one way or another related to helping people with disabilities. One of the most debilitating and most extensive types of disability is paralysis. These individuals have intact brains, but the connection between the brain and the rest of the body is lost. Interestingly, the tongue is directly connected to the brain—totally independent of the spinal cord. This technology, the Tongue Drive, allows people to use their tongue motion for their lost movement.

The Tongue Drive started in 2005 when I was at North Carolina State University. I moved to Georgia Tech in 2007, one of the reasons being that it was closer to the Shepherd Center, one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the world.

Why is this better than the traditional sip-and-puff system?
The most important problem with sip-and-puff is that it’s very slow. With the Tongue Drive, all you need to do is touch a particular tooth or landmark in your mouth. It’s much faster. We did a side-by-side comparison for the very same tasks. On average, the Tongue Drive came up three times faster than sip-and-puff while providing the same level of accuracy. Plus, it’s very easy to use.

Where does research stand?
We did a very preliminary study at the Shepherd Center a few years ago. The most recent study involved eleven people with disabilities (seven at Shepherd, four at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). The significance of the study is that all participants received piercings. They were motivated enough to get piercings even though they knew the system was not yet available.

When do you think it will be on the market?
My estimate is something around two years. There is a lot of hope in the field. There are other technologies that are being developed, including implants inserted in the brain through surgery. Compared to that, a tongue piercing is nothing!

How it works
A magnetic piercing turns the user’s tongue into a joystick. (Glue-on magnets were tested, but fell off in two hours.)

Sensors in a wireless headset detect where the user positions his tongue.

The sensors send information to a smartphone that detects gestures and relays commands to the chair.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue under the headline “On the Tip of the Tongue.”