After volunteering at the National Stuttering Association, electrical engineering student Jonathan Posey pondered how he could apply some engineering know-how to help people who stutter.
Delayed auditory devices, such as SpeechEasy and SmallTalk, function somewhat like a hearing aid: they either delay or alter the sound of one’s voice, creating an echo, or play some sort of noise, both of which are proven to reduce stuttering. The devices can cost from $1,000 to $5,000 and are not typically covered by medical insurance.
“I began to see the difficulties faced by many of my friends who stutter, and I thought there has to be a better way to help these people,” says Posey, a sophomore.
He joined forces with fellow electrical engineering students, seniors James Beatty and J. S. Ham, and juniors Thomas Parnell and Steve Lim. Jack Lechner, BS Computer Science ’12, also joined the team. They came up with a plan to create a device that could replicate the technology but cost significantly less than electronic earpieces currently on the market. The students chose to volunteer their time for this project and received no class credit.
“I started thinking about how we can demonstrate that, with off-the-shelf-components and basic knowledge of electrical engineering and computer programming, a lower price solution can be [reached] for people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to purchase a similar commercial device,” Posey says.
The students began working on the project early in the spring 2012 semester under the guidance of Mason electrical and computer engineering professor Nathalia Peixoto and James Brinton, a speech language pathologist at the Katherine Thomas School in Rockville, Maryland.
For their project, the students envisioned the user would carry a microcontroller—a very small computer—in his or her pocket and have access to external control buttons. These buttons would communicate with a Bluetooth earpiece worn by the user that picks up the vibrations of the user’s voice and rapidly relays those sounds to the microcontroller and then back to the earpiece.
Their first step was to design and write the software that would allow the microcontroller to communicate with the earpiece. The students used earpieces readily available in retail stores.
Lechner explains that when a person speaks, his or her speech follows several traditional patterns in the brain. For a person who stutters, these pathways change. A delayed auditory device changes the pathways back to more traditional ones by echoing the speech. Depending on the user’s needs, the device either delays speech, changes the frequency, or both.
As the project progressed, Posey called on the expertise of Bob Martin, manager at Atmel Corporation, a worldwide leader in the design and manufacture of microcontrollers and other technological devices. The pair first met in early January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After hearing the details of Posey’s project, Martin was eager to help.
In May, Martin traveled from San Francisco to Mason’s Fairfax Campus where he introduced 25 interested students to his company and helped them learn how to program software for use with a microcontroller. Martin donated several microcontrollers to Posey and his team for their project.
“It was a great experience to be able to work with these students on a project that they were doing on a completely voluntary basis to help others who stutter, as well as work with other students who had a desire to learn,” says Martin. “Atmel was more than happy to assist them in their endeavor and provide the necessary supplies so that they could bring their ideas to fruition.”
With the design and implementation of the software for the microcontroller completed, the team plans to spend the next few months testing the device.
Posey says he and his team have no plans to market a product. Instead, they plan to put their software program online for others to use, and they hope to publish a paper in an engineering or speech pathology journal.
“Ultimately, we hope to inspire speech pathologists to start thinking more like engineers, as well as encourage engineers to steer away from analytical thoughts and think outside the box,” says Posey. “And we simply wanted the satisfaction of creating something that has the potential to help not only the Mason community, but people all across the country.”