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Sniff-activated Systems Drive Wheelchairs and Improve Communication

A new sniff-sensing controller developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel may enable those individuals with severe paralysis to navigate wheelchairs, surf the Net, and communicate in writing via controlled inhalations and exhalations.

This system employs a sensor that fits in a nostril’s opening and measures changes in air pressure. A pressure transducer translates this information into electrical signals, which are transmitted to a computer, and its specialized software, via USB connection. Patients on respirators use a passive version of the device that diverts airflow to their nostrils.

Researchers tested the system on 96 healthy volunteers and 10 quadriplegics, with promising results. Some users, the team says, were able to navigate an electric wheelchair around a complex path or play a computer game with nearly the speed and accuracy of a mouse or joystick.

The scientists were particularly encouraged by tests conducted on three patients with Locked-In-Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which cognitive function remains unimpaired, but all voluntary muscles are paralyzed, except for those that control eye movement. Using the sniffing system to control a computer cursor, the Locked-In testers were–after considerable practice–able to communicate with family members. Pressure changes picked up by the sniff-controlled writing software allow the user to choose letters and words.

The standalone sniff controller for a wheelchair was developed at a cost of $358, which is much less than the average eye-tracking setup. Weizmann researchers estimate that if produced at scale, its controller would cost only a fraction of that amount. Sniff detection, however, would not make eye tracking obsolete. In cases where eye movements would work and sniffs wouldn’t, so both technologies could be combined for maximum effect.

For the full article and videos demonstrating how the sniff-activated system works, see:


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