Wednesday, 03 December 2014 09:18

Intel upgrades Hawking's communication system

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Physicist Stephen Hawking's "decades old" communication system has been upgraded with software developed by Intel.

Intel has unveiled the fruits of a three-year project to improve the assistive communications system used by Professor Stephen Hawking. The new software can be adapted for 3 million people afflicted with motor neurone diseases and quadriplegia, the company said.

Hawking wanted to retain the basic user interface, which he has been using for decades. The problem was that the progress of his motor neurone disease had slowed his ability to communicate to around one word per minute.

So an Intel Labs team led by user experience research principal engineer Lama Nachman (pictured with Hawking) re-wrote the software from scratch, keeping the cheek movement sensor but adding features to streamline interaction.

These include SwiftKey-based automatic word completion (reducing the typing load by 80%) and contextual menus that reflect Hawking's patterns of use.

"If you're using Microsoft Word, which Stephen uses a lot, there are a few sets of functions that you want to use most often - open a new document, save, edit, and so on," explained Nachman.

"We added a lot of contextual menus to his system, so he can select one with a single click, rather than having to go to the mouse, then to the menu, then to select an option. We created a lot of these new contextual options throughout the system to speed up use."

Similarly, web searching is now a one-step process.

Overall, Hawking's typing speed has doubled and there is a tenfold improvement in common tasks.

While the new ACAT (Assistive Context Aware Toolkit) system was developed specifically for Hawking, Intel believes it has broader applicability. For example, it is potentially usable with touch, eyebrow movements and other user inputs. Intel will release the free customisable platform to the research and technology communities in January 2015 in the hope that it will be further improved and used to create new and better assistive devices.

"Medicine has not been able to cure me, so I rely on technology to help me communicate and live," said Hawking.

"Intel has been supporting me for almost 20 years, allowing me to do what I love every day. The development of this system has the potential to improve the lives of disabled people around the world and is leading the way in terms of human interaction and the ability to overcome communication boundaries that once stood in the way."

The software can potentially benefit three million people.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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