Penn Staters work together to share voice technology with teen in Sri Lanka

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Danush is a high school student who wants to go to college, but first he must complete a standardized test with multiple-choice questions.

Unfortunately, Danush is unable to communicate through spoken word due to cerebral palsy. His muscle movement is also restricted, so he is unable to clearly point to answers on the test.

Inside a simple room in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a Penn State researcher and Penn State alumna recently helped Danush use, for the first time, a communication device that was developed by another Penn State graduate.

Kathy Drager, associate dean for research and graduate education with the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, traveled to Sri Lanka with the equipment, called Voz Box. (Voz is Spanish for “voice.”)

There, Drager met with Nimisha Muttiah, who earned a doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders at Penn State in 2015 and is now a senior lecturer in the Department of Disability Studies at the University of Kelaniya. Drager served as Muttiah’s academic adviser and research supervisor at Penn State.

Together, Drager and Muttiah took the Voz Box to the Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation in Colombo, the capital city. At the center, they met with the founder, Gopi Kitnasamy, and his 16-year-old son, Danush, who is unable to communicate through spoken word due to cerebral palsy.

Drager and Muttiah helped Danush try the Voz Box, to show him, his teachers and therapists the possibilities through advancing technology.

The Voz Box is the result of Project Vive, founded by Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, a 2016 graduate of the Penn State College of Engineering and Schreyer Honors College. The company, inspired by her time as an exchange student in Ecuador where she volunteered at an orphanage for children and adults with disabilities, works to give a voice to the voiceless. 

The device features a customized sensor based on the body part a user has the most control. The sensor is connected to the box, which contains a custom-programmed board and Bluetooth capability. The box takes movement from the sensor and sends that to an earpiece. The earpiece asks the user what they want to say through various menu options that the user clicks through using their sensor. When they have selected their statement, it is broadcast through a speaker.

In the United States, the use of augmentative and alternative communication systems (AAC), which often include computers, tablets or mobile devices, is advancing. These systems help children better communicate with their families and peers.

Such technology is not widely available in Sri Lanka.

For Muttiah, helping Danush use AAC equipment for the first time reminded her that AAC tools are still new in Sri Lanka.

“It was the first time the staff at the center had seen or experienced any kind of equipment such as this. It really opened their eyes to the potentials of technology and the opportunities that come along with that,” Muttiah said. “It was really amazing to see how excited the student got about using the equipment, but at the same time it reminded me how cognitively challenging using this type of equipment can be for students with complex communication needs. I think this is just the beginning to many more collaborative projects between Penn State and Sri Lanka.”

The visit also allowed Drager to observe the innovative, low technology approaches that a country with fewer resources can come up with to accomplish goals. For example, the center has designed and created needed items out of corrugated cardboard, an easily accessible material.  By layering multiple sheets and wrapping these layers in tape, they have created sturdy, lightweight equipment, ranging from chairs, to wheelchair lap trays, to homemade puzzles and toys.

“For me, being able to see somebody do something they couldn’t do before validates the work that I do,” Drager said. “It also reminded me that not only does the developed world have a lot to offer the developing world, but if we combine the tools we have access to with their ingenuity, that’s going to help solve problems.”

Muttiah plans to return to the center to provide staff necessary training for the equipment in hopes it will allow Danush and other children to continue using the tool.

Project Vive operates with a global mindset, which is why Project Vive donated the Voz Box to the Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation. The company’s long-term goal is to bring such technology to low-income communities and developing countries.

“We wanted to send this device to Sri Lanka to receive early feedback on our journey of bringing this technology to the world,” McCulloch said. “We very much value the feedback from the Sri Lanka beta test, and are already planning ease-of-use improvements, while continuing to search for funding to provide a voice to those in need.”

Project Vive was selected in January 2016 as one of the inaugural startups to work at Happy Valley LaunchBox, Penn State's no-cost business pre-accelerator program, which is a part of the Invent Penn State initiative.

Vive (pronounced “vee-vay”) is Spanish for “to live.” Learn more about Project Vive at Projectvive.com.

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Last Updated January 24, 2017