NASA's Subvocal Speech System

NASA created a prototype subvocal speech system that reads nerve signals in the throat in 2004:

In preliminary experiments, NASA scientists found that small, button-sized sensors, stuck under the chin and on either side of the 'Adam's apple,' could gather nerve signals, and send them to a processor and then to a computer program that translates them into words. Eventually, such 'subvocal speech' systems could be used in spacesuits, in noisy places like airport towers to capture air-traffic controller commands, or even in traditional voice-recognition programs to increase accuracy, according to NASA scientists.

"What is analyzed is silent, or subauditory, speech, such as when a person silently reads or talks to himself," said Chuck Jorgensen, a scientist whose team is developing silent, subvocal speech recognition at NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "Biological signals arise when reading or speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial movement," Jorgensen explained.

"A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly, it cannot be heard, but the tongue and vocal cords do receive speech signals from the brain," Jorgensen said.

In their first experiment, scientists 'trained' special software to recognize six words and 10 digits that the researchers repeated subvocally. Initial word recognition results were an average of 92 percent accurate. The first subvocal words the system 'learned' were 'stop,' 'go,' 'left,' 'right,' 'alpha' and 'omega,' and the digits 'zero' through 'nine.' Silently speaking these words, scientists conducted simple searches on the Internet by using a number chart representing the alphabet to control a Web browser program.

"We took the alphabet and put it into a matrix -- like a calendar. We numbered the columns and rows, and we could identify each letter with a pair of single-digit numbers," Jorgensen said. "So we silently spelled out 'NASA' and then submitted it to a well-known Web search engine. We electronically numbered the Web pages that came up as search results. We used the numbers again to choose Web pages to examine. This proved we could browse the Web without touching a keyboard," Jorgensen explained.


(Subvocal speech demo)

Frank Herbert came pretty close to this idea in his 1972 novel The Godmakers, describing an "implanted transceiver":

Orne stood at an opposite port, studying the jungle horizon... The surgical scars on his neck where the micro-communications equipment had been inserted into his flesh itched maddeningly...

"Let's check that equipment the surgeons put in your neck."

Stetson put a hand to his own throat. His mouth remained closed, but a surf-hissing voice became audible to Orne, radiating from the implanted transceiver: "You read me, Orne? ...touch the mike contact. Keep your mouth closed. Just use your speaking muscles without speaking aloud."

David Brin wrote about it quite specifically in his 1990 novel Earth.

She took a subvocal input device from its rack and placed the attached sensors on her throat, jaw, and temples. A faint glitter in the display screens meant the machine was already tracking her eyes, noting by curvature of lens and angle of pupil the exact spot on which she focused at any moment.

She didn't have to speak aloud, only intend to. The subvocal read nerve signals, letting her enter words by just beginning to will them...
(Read more about the Subvocal Input Device)

Jorgensen was interviewed in 2013 on this device:

NTB: Where are we at now? Is it in use currently?

Jorgensen: The NASA budget for that work was terminated, partly to do with a termination of a broader program for the Extension of the Human Senses. The idea has been picked up worldwide, and there’s a very large group in Germany working on it now, and there were a number of worldwide activities. I’m still getting calls from different people around the world that are pursuing it in their laboratory. Our ultimate goal on this, and I still think that there’s work that can be done, was to develop a silent cell phone, so that we would be capable of communicating either auditorily or silently on a cell phone using the same type of technology.

NTB: What does it look like, and is it a user-friendly technology?

Jorgensen: It’s mixed. It’s easier to implement with the coarser muscle movements like with, for example, the control stick area of that technology. It’s very straightforward. That can be a sleeve that is slid over your arm. Something like subvocal speech requires picking up signals on different areas around the mouth and the larynx. The reality of it is that you have to still put in place sensors in different areas of the face to pick it up.

We were originally doing our work with the classical type of wet electrode sensors that you would see if you want to have an electro-cardiogram in a doctor’s office. They’re bulky. They’re patchy. We later did work on dry electrodes, which didn’t require that moisture, and the most advanced work currently out there that we had also initiated was capacitive sensors, which picked up the tiny electromagnetic fields without requiring direct contact with the skin. These sensors were brought down to the level of about the size of a dime, and they’ve continued to shrink since then. That was an important part of the puzzle. We needed to both have the sensor technology to collect the signals in a non-obtrusive way and the processing algorithms to do something with it. We focused more on the processing algorithms. The Department of Defense has advanced the sensor side of it quite heavily. They, in fact, have entire helmets that have been populated with microsensors. The components are there, but so far it wouldn’t be a “drop it on.” There would have to be individual training and customization.

Via NASA and TechBriefs.

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