He’s worked on a lunar rover, made-up a 3D printable drone, and developed an audio technology to narrate the globe for the visually impaired. But 24-year-old Arnav Kapur’s newest invention will do something even additional sci-fi: it will hear the voice within your head.
Yes, it’s true. AlterEgo, Kapur’s new wearable device system, can detect what you’re saying when you’re talking to yourself, even if you’re completely silent and not moving your mouth. The technology incorporates a system of sensors that find the minuscule neuromuscular signals sent by the brain to the vocal cords and muscles of the throat and tongue. These signals are sent out whenever we speak to ourselves silently, even if we make no sounds.
The device feeds the signals through an A.I., which “reads” them and turns them into words. The user hears the A.I.’s responses through a microphone that conducts sound through the bones of the skull and ear, making them silent to others. Users can even respond out loud using artificial voice technology.
AlterEgo won the “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, awarded to technology-based inventions involving consumer devices. The award comes with a $15,000 cash prize. “A lot of people with all sorts of speech pathologies are deprived of the ability to communicate with other people,” says Kapur, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT. “This might restore the flexibility to speak for those who can’t.”
Kapur is presently testing the device on folks with communication limitations through numerous hospitals and rehabilitation centers in the Boston area.
These limitations may be caused by stroke, cerebral palsy or neurodegenerative diseases like ALS.
In the case of ALS, the illness affects the nerves within the brain and spinal cord, progressively robbing people of their ability to use their muscles, including those that control speech. But their brains still send speech signals to the vocal cords and the 100-plus muscles involved in speaking. AlterEgo can capture those signals and switch them into speech. According to Kapur’s research, the system is about 92 percent accurate.
Kapur remembers testing the device with a man with late-stage ALS who hadn’t spoken in a decade. To communicate, he’d been using an eye-tracking device that allowed him to operate a keyboard with his gaze. The eye-tracking worked but was time-consuming and laborious.
“The first time (AlterEgo) worked he aforesaid, ‘today has been a good, good day,'” Kapur recollects.