Innovation Gives Voice to Physically Disabled

Umut Orhan

PhD student Umut Orhan’s work has put Northeastern at the forefront of futuristic brain-computer interfaces. As team leader of the RSVP Keyboard Project under the direction of Prof. Deniz Erdogmus, Orhan has designed and built prototypes which allow users to type using only their thoughts.

This research has applications beyond the sci-fi appeal — over 2 million Americans are currently living with “locked-in syndrome,” a condition in which an individual with a normally functioning brain is unable to communicate with the outside world due to severe motor and speech impairment. Orhan’s RSVP Keyboard gives these patients a new means of communication which does not require any manual operation. In Orhan’s prototype, the user wears a helmet fitted with EEG sensors while letter choices flash rapidly on a computer screen. When the letter the user has been awaiting flashes on screen, the sensors detects a burst of brain activity. Using this new technology, locked-in patients can string together words and sentences. Orhan’s research promises to restore their voice and allow them to communicate with caretakers, friends, and family.

Orhan’s papers based on this work have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed publications, including the Journal of Neural Engineering, Transactions on Signal Processing, and the International Journal of Imaging Systems and Technology.