Thanks to the work of engineer and entrepreneur Michael Callahan, severely disabled people may one day soon have the ability to use the power of thought to control devices such as motorized wheelchairs to achieve improved communication, mobility and independence.
Callahan's invention, a system dubbed the "Audeo," uses advanced processing technology to interpret neurological signals and turn them into spoken words or commands. Unlike earlier, similar devices, the system does not require any physical movement, such as pressing a button or moving the neck or head. This means a much larger variety of people would be able to begin communicating on their own, with unprecedented clarity.
Born in 1982, Callahan began working on the project while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004. Interested in nanotechnology as well as neuroscience, his early work included research in scanning tunneling microscopy for the Fredrick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy.
As he approached his senior year at Illinois, he read of a robotic prosthesis that had the ability to intercept neuronal activity at the vocal cords. This inspired his idea to work on new type of computer-assisted communications system as his senior design project. As Callahan began to look deeper into the idea, he found that there was an obvious great need among patients with spinal cord injuries or with diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for a communication system they could use to "talk"
to caretakers, friends and family members.
Callahan began working with a team to develop a system for gathering neurological information detectable near a patient's head and neck. A computer program then interprets those signals and turns them into audio and on-screen responses. Callahan lead the way in seeking sponsorship for the project and was able to secure backing from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Through this partnership his group was able to conduct human testing.
By 2005, Callahan and his teammates had produced a successful prototype able to turn signals into language with approximately 70 percent accuracy. In October of that year, Callahan established his own company, Ambient, to further develop and commercialize the "Audeo" system. He and his team proceeded to win the University of Illinois' Dale Cozad Business Plan Competition. Callahan was also recipient of the college's 2005 Ben Jay Rosenthal Award.
As of this 2007 writing, Callahan is a graduate student in the University of Illinois' Systems and Entrepreneurial Engineering program where he is continuing development of the Audeo system in partnership with the RIC, with additional support from National Instruments and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. In February of this year, he was named winner of the first-ever $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize. A demonstration of the Audeo system may be found on the Ambient Web site, at theaudeo.com