Finding new ways to increase inclusivity and accessibility is crucial because more than one billion people in the world live with disabilities, according to the World Health Organization. One in seven adults in the US has a disability that affects their mobility, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with mobility impairment might need assistance with typing, scrolling, or gaming. These disabilities can affect someone’s ability to work, connect with others socially or romantically, or enjoy their electronic devices.
However, Corten Singer and Tomás Vega, co-founders of Augmental, an MIT Media Lab spinoff, are determined to give people with disabilities more control — and that’s where a new assistive technology called MouthPad could have a big impact.
MouthPad allows users to control their electronic devices with their tongues. MouthPad resembles a plastic retainer, like Invisalign, and encases a trackpad, pressure sensor, battery, charging coil, and Bluetooth chip.
Historically, assistive technology has been limited to eye-tracking devices, mouth-controlled joysticks, and voice-to-text applications. But Vega says these technologies are outdated, bulky, and indiscreet.
“Computers allow us to create, learn, share, express, and connect with others. Computers are so amazing not because of the intelligence they provide but because they are so easy to control — for you and for me,” Vega says. “But for those with severe hand impairments, it’s not easy; it’s actually quite hard because they rely on outdated interfaces that are unexpressive.”
MouthPad offers something different. The technology fits into the user’s mouth and connects to their device via Bluetooth. When MouthPad is inserted, users can talk and close their mouths, eliminating the bulky and sometimes uncomfortable traits associated with mouth-controlled joysticks.
Singer is concerned that people with disabilities are sometimes excluded from elements of society because they don’t have equal access to technology. However, he believes the tools he’s developing at Augmental can help boost inclusivity.
“In our society, in the past, if you had a physical disability, it was nearly impossible to engage with social institutions and be a community member that contributes because you had no access,” Singer says. “But now, there’s no excuse to exclude people. We have all the technology we need to enable equitable access.”
Singer and Vega acknowledge that MouthPad works best when paired with speech technology, and the device is not meant to replace already-existing and well-performing assistive tech. However, the device can be used without voice if the user is in a situation where they want to be discreet.
To receive a MouthPad device, interested parties must first join the waitlist. After that, they will receive equipment to complete a dental scan, so Augmental can visualize the inside of their mouth. MouthPad is a bespoke device, meaning its design is customized to the user’s oral anatomy.
Singer and Vega focused on the tongue as a means to control an electronic device because of its agility, precision, stamina, and its ability to execute complex sounds and movements. The human tongue is a unique combination of eight different muscles and is structured similarly to an elephant’s trunk or an octopus’s tentacles.
“We’ve likened the tongue to the eleventh finger,” Singer says.
A vital nerve in the human brain controls the tongue, and most of the tongue’s control is innate and serves an important evolutionary and survival function. Harnessing the tongue’s seemingly unlimited stamina means the user won’t need breaks from using the MouthPad until the device’s battery dies.
“I’m speaking right now, and I’m moving my tongue in fast and precise ways, and I don’t even have to think about it,” Vega says. “There’s a myriad of different configurations of the tongue, and our goal is to leverage the intrinsic dexterity of the tongue and enable an expressive, natural, and low-effort interface.”
Krystina Wray Jackson uses a MouthPad when they’re creating graphic art at work. Jackson says doing things like controlling their TV, checking emails, and creating art are simplified and more enjoyable since using the technology.
“The MouthPad has quickly become an integral part of my day-to-day,” Jackson says. “It’s hard to imagine life before the device.”
Jackson says voice-controlled technologies, such as Siri and Alexa, are less flexible and convenient than MouthPad. Sometimes, Jackson travels by car or plane and doesn’t want to say a voice command out loud. MouthPad mitigates this issue by helping to maintain privacy without giving up control of the device.
For now, Singer and Vega’s company, Augmental, must complete its FCC certification before it can sell and ship the devices. So, details surrounding the device’s price and widespread availability are unclear.