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High tech pacifier gives quadriplegics access to cyberspace

posted 3 Jan 2013, 13:12 by Mpelembe   [ updated 3 Jan 2013, 13:13 ]

A Taiwanese quadriplegic patient regains some control of his life through a pacifier-shaped switch that allows him to interact with the online world again.

 TAINANTAIWAN  (REUTERS) - Like other 32-year-olds, quadriplegic patient Yen Ching-hung browses the Internet, interacts with friends on Facebook, and types documents for his job -- at the speed of 50 words per minute.

"Busy. You can never imagine who's interviewing me now," Yen recently updated his Facebook status.

This was made possible by a pacifier-shaped switch invented by a Taiwanese professor to assist patients like Yen who have severe physical limitations.

Director at National Cheng Kung University's Department of Electrical Engineering Centre of Advanced Biomedical System, Luo Ching-hsing designed the pacifier switch to operate a computer keyboard with Morse code. With simple long and short presses, the switch translates a 26 letter alphabet, function keys, and can also be used as a mouse.

The first generation switch was invented 10 years ago for Yen to use, and has now been modified to the size of a USB storage drive and has become more accurate in distinguishing the long and short signals. It took approximately two months for Yen to master the system.

Yen was paralysed when he damaged his cervical spine after jumping into a swimming pool 14 years ago. He stayed in the ICU for three months and the doctor concluded that he was paralysed from his neck down and would need to breathe through a tube.

His mother, 66-year-old Wu Shu-chen, said Yen was extremely depressed after the accident and even suggested ways to end his life. But his life took a brighter turn when he was introduced to Professor Luo's project.

"Ching-hung was on the edge of hopelessness and misery, and the professor pulled him back. He can now freely browse the Internet, and look around. His body is trapped here, but his intellect and his soul are not trapped, he can freely travel and look around," Wu said.

Yen says he is thankful for the technology, especially now that he can reconnect with many childhood friends through the Internet.

"When I first became paralysed, I thought life was meaningless, but I am happy to be the professor's 'lab rat' to test these devices, because I know I still have the ability to do things, and to contribute," said Yen.

According to Dr. Luo, the pacifier could make a big difference for disabled people around the world but because the market in Taiwan isn't big enough, he hasn't been able to sell the concept to manufacturers for mass production.

When Yen used the switch to play video games and stayed up the whole night, Luo decided to host video game tournaments to reach out to other patients. The first Assistive GameMaster Tournament took place in October 2012 and 60 physically challenged contestants took part. Family, friends and supporters cheered and clapped as the contestants competed and clicked away, all while lying on their respective gurneys.

"We want to implement these assistive technologies into the lives of people with disabilities, and through video games they can learn it fast, because they want to participate in the tournament. At the same time we allow the people with disabilities to see the development of advanced assistive technologies, demonstrate the results and bring it to the government's attention. This is why we hosted the tournament," Luo said.

Luo hopes that through video game tournaments, quadriplegic patients can get more familiar with the device.

He plans to host similar tournaments in two years and invite the general public to play with these assistive tools as well.