Teenager from India invents device that can convert breath to speech
Image: Arsh Shah Dilbagi

Sixteen-year-old Arsh Shah Dilbagi has developed a new technology called ‘TALK’, which is a cheap and portable device to help people who are physically incapable of speaking express themselves. Right now, 1.4 percent of the world’s population has very limited or no speech, due to conditions such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), locked-in syndrome (LIS), Encephalopathy (SEM), Parkinson’s disease, and paralysis. So that's literally a group of people that could match the entire population of Germany, and all of them unable to speak.

Stephen Hawking has a device to help him communicate, but it's extremely expensive, costing several thousand dollars, and is also quite bulky. What Dilbagi has managed to do is invent a device that achieves the same thing, but can be purchased for just $80.

The way TALK works is that it’s able to translate the user’s breath into electric signals using a special device called a MEMS Microphone. This technology is composed of a pressure-sensitive diaphragm etched directly into a silicon chip, and an amplifying device to increase the sound of the user’s breath.

By expelling two types of breaths into the device, with different intensities and timing, the user is able to spell out words in Morse code. "A microprocessor then interprets the breathes into dots and dashes, converting them into words. The words are then sent to a second microprocessor that synthesises them into voice,” says Whitney Mallett at Motherboard. "The morse code can either be translated into English, or specific commands and phrases. The device features nine different voices varying in age and gender."

People who do not have a means of properly expressing themselves, like those living with speech disorders, experience a lower than average life expectancy because of it. Dilbagi’s aim for this device is to give millions of people like this a 'voice' for the first time.

"After testing the final design with myself and friends and family, I was able to arrange a meeting with the Head of Neurology at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi and tested TALK (under supervision of doctor and in controlled environment) with a person suffering from SEM and Parkinson's Disease," Dilbagi reports. "The person was able to give two distinguishable signals using his breath and the device worked perfectly.”

TALK was developed by Dilbagi as part of Google’s Global Science Fair, which is a competion that’s open to 13 to 18-year-olds from anywhere in the world. Dilbagi is the only finalist left from Asia. Here he is talking about his device: