How do the incredible technologies in Stephen Hawking's chair work?

Scientist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed at age 21 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. A rare and degenerative disease that gradually paralyzes all the muscles in the body, without, however, affecting brain functions.

Since that period, few years of life have been predicted for Hawking. However, the scientist lived a long life and passed away at the age of 76, on March 14, 2018, in the United Kingdom. Therefore, Hawking had several technological resources that helped him speak and communicateallowing him to interact with others despite being paralyzed.

Stephen Hawking was a scientist, physicist and developed numerous technologies to communicate, despite being diagnosed with ALS.

Although this condition brought him obvious limitations, his personality never stopped studying, publishing and learning. Already at an advanced age, Stephen Hawking only had some motor functions on his left side, located in the region of the facial muscles.

This is the only way he was able to communicate with the computer and the wheelchair. The scientist controlled all the functions of a tablet computer with just one command. He used a Lenovo ThinkPad X230t with a Core i7 processor, which coordinated all of the chair's systems.

An Intel video provides some details about the wheelchair technology (in English). See below:

Hawking's PC interface was called EZ Keys and read each letter from the on-screen keyboard at once. When Hawking moved his cheek muscles slightly, an infrared sensor attached to the glasses detected the movement, and the computer selected the desired letter. A synthesizer located behind the chair translated the typed text into audio – in Hawking's characteristic electronic voice.

This same mechanism was also used to access other PC functions, such as email (Eudora), the browser (Firefox) and even Skype. However, as Hawking's condition gradually worsened, there came a time when he could only type two words per minute. It is worth noting that some scientists tried to reduce this time by providing ready-made words based on the teacher's writing style.

A universal remote control on his PC allowed him to operate the TV, turn lights on and off, and even open doors at home and work. A peripheral box located near the feet contained a USB hub, an audio amplifier, and voltage regulators for the different subsystems. The firmware worked with the wheelchair's batteries just below the seat, which also had a backup from the batteries themselves.

The scientist served as an example for other cases of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

The brain sends nerve signals to the vocal cords whenever we speak, even if the muscles are not strong enough to produce audible sounds. Subvocal speech occurs in our mind before we even say anything.

Technologies originally developed for the NASA Research Center are now available for disabled people can control motorized wheelchairssending thoughts to a synthesizer.

In this case, the user uses electrodes fixed to the throat which, upon receiving objective orders from the brain (such as Stop or go ahead), communicate with the chair so that the movements can be carried out. The small electrical impulses are decoded, translating into simple commands for the wheelchair.

Unfortunately, interfaces of this type did not work properly with Stephen Hawking, proving to be unstable. Depending on the position of the electrodes in each individual, the recognition rate can drop from 94% to less than 50%. Therefore, this type of system must be improved so that it does not oscillate so much.

In 2014, Intel presented the Connected Wheelchairs Project, carried out in conjunction with Hawking. The equipment is capable of measuring the user's health, such as body temperature and blood pressure – in addition to checking the accessibility of places that can be visited by the person.

Hawking has worked with groups of engineers at Intel for more than a decade and said the connected chair is an example of how technology for the disabled is opening up new possibilities for the future. Watch the project presentation video:

In 2022, a group of German, Italian, Swiss and American researchers have developed a mind-controlled wheelchair. It was tested on patients, who had good results when driving, managing speed and navigating with the device.

In addition to this example, many other studies are under development. And, clearly, Stephen Hawking was one of the great inspiring talents who, to this day, has countless scientific discoveries being the basis for new research.

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