Speaking in a new voice

Arlyn Edelstein had been working with Mary Elizabeth McCulloch and the Project Vive team for about a month. The Johnstown, Pennsylvania, woman, who has nonverbal celebral palsy, created and customized her own word menus so she could communicate through a computer using the Voz Box, which lets users activate those menus and build full sentences with the smallest of movements.

McCulloch’s first question was simple: What do you like to do?

Edelstein’s answer: “I like to write poems.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, Edelstein, with the help of the Voz Box, a patented voice augmentation system, read some of her poetry at a free event titled “My Voice, My Power."

“If anything, it’s further motivation that this project is solving a need,” McCulloch said.

McCulloch, a 2016 graduate from Schreyer Honors College, is in the user testing phase of Project Vive, which officially launched last spring but was inspired several years earlier by an exchange trip McCulloch took to Ecuador during high school. She worked with about a dozen special needs children, including those with celebral palsy, Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities.

“Each of them was different,” she said. “All of them had control over a certain movement – a toe, a finger. You could actually ask them questions to replicate that movement.”

Many existing assistive devices use eye tracking on computer screens to build words or sentences but also come with five-figure price tags. McCulloch, who majored in bioengineering and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering at Penn State, and her team sought to develop more affordable and accessible devices that also allowed users to communicate face-to-face.

The Vive device is powered by sensors on fingertips that can be activated by simple hand or finger movements or, in Edelstein's case, pressure on a foot pedal. That allows users to scroll through menu options – which can be customized to words or subjects the user encounters most frequently – that are read to them via an accompanying Bluetooth earpiece until they find the word or phrases they're looking for, allowing them to be clear and specific. The device can also be set to disregard trembles to ensure that no inadvertent messages are sent.

“A lot of people who communicate through sign, people who have been around them a long time can understand their expressions, or what certain sounds mean,” McCulloch said. “But when they meet someone new, it can be really hard to communicate with them and also to just express themselves as a regular person with thoughts and talents and ideas, just like Arlyn.”

Edelstein’s nephew had seen a story about Project Vive on a Penn State news site, so he got her in touch with McCulloch. They started working together in July.

McCulloch still lives in the area – Happy Valley LaunchBox has given the group free rent space for a year as part of the Invent Penn State initiative – and relies on a team that is heavy with Penn State influences. Chief technology officer Rodney Miller is a current senior majoring in electrical engineering, and media specialist Lisa Gardner is a current Schreyer Scholar.

The Project Vive team plans to conduct another round of testing before releasing its products to the public. It also hopes to develop toys that will train young children to use the sensors at a developmental stage so that they can more easily adapt to the communication devices when they’re ready to start conversing. The group has worked directly with five individuals other than Edelstein, with the ultimate goal of helping them realize their own dreams, much like Edelstein will do on Wednesday evening.

Vive (pronounced “vee-vay”), after all, is Spanish for “to live.”

“It’s sharing your life and your experiences with others through communication,” McCulloch said, “and giving them a way to share that.”

 

Last Updated October 04, 2016