Over the last 18 months, clinician Kayla Douthie has seen a first-hand how technological advances can improve the lives of people living with disability.
Douthie specialises in complex communication at Perth-based disability service Rocky Bay and has found great success with technology that verges on mind-reading.
Some of her clients have started using the NeuroNode: a device typically worn on the wrist that detects and interprets slight muscle movements, allowing the clients to interface with a computer.
“The independence this technology can give people is great,” Douthie told Information Age.
“It means they might be able to write emails, use Facebook, have private conversations and or turn the TV on without the support worker’s help.
“One client with a NeuroNode has a progressive disease and loves how much the device has helped him go back to some of the things he was once able to do.
“He used to be part of a speech club where they got together and practiced delivered speeches – now he has been able to go back to that.”
NeuroNode measures minute muscle movements using electromyography (EMG) – the same technology also used by Facebook-owned startup CTRL-Labs for its mind-reading wristbands.
For Facebook, the same concept that drives life-changing technology for people living with disabilities will inform its efforts toward augmented and virtual reality by enabling users the ability to interact with virtual spaces without having to hold onto a controller like they do in current virtual reality systems.
It could mean interfacing with devices like smart glasses will involve gesture control that is nearly imperceptible to outside observers while providing the same functionality as a keyboard and mouse.
Apple recently rolled out similar technology in a recent Apple Watch update that now allows gesture control.
It’s called Assistive Touch and is a means of allowing direct interaction with the Apple Watch’s small screen through small hand gestures.
Rather than relying on EMG, Assistive Touch uses the device’s gyroscope, accelerometer, and heart rate sensor to detect a user clenching and pinching.
When combined with a cursor controlled by rolling your wrist around, Assistive Touch gives people access to most of the Apple Watch screen’s features with only one hand.
Some have speculated the feature will be integrated with the long-awaited Apple Glasses.
The future of disability care
The inclusion of EMG and gesture control in consumer technology signals a shrinking of the technological divide people who live with disabilities face.
Devices like NeuroNode can be covered under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) meaning Australians can have more direct access to computers and communications technology without necessarily paying out of pocket.
“We have had success getting NDIS approval but it’s not just the device you needing funding for,” Douthie said.
“It takes skilled therapists to use and train clients on which means more NDIS funding for therapy hours.
“The NDIS is a big system so it’s important we have people who are experienced in making those applications and know what the NDIS wants to hear about why this sort of equipment is needed.
“It is really great to see the technology develop and how much it helps people.”
Douthie said she is excited to see how technology will continue to develop and support people living with disabilities, saying she has been inspired by talks from biomedical engineer Jordan Nguyen who once helped Riley Saban, a young man with cerebral palsey, drive a car with his mind.
One of the most well-known proponents of this technology is Elon Musk whose company Neuralink is looking at ways to implant computer chips into people’s brains so they can control a smart phone.
Neuralink goes a step beyond EMG by measuring electrical signals long before they reach muscles, potentially allowing for the next level of gesture control.
Already Neuralink has shown off its animal testing stages by posting a video of a monkey playing the computer game pong with only its thoughts.
And an article in Nature from earlier this year suggested brain-computer interfaces like Neuralink could one day make it possible to type at the speed of thought, completely removing the need for traditional keyboards.