Apple’s platforms have long been lauded for their dedication to industry-leading accessibility features. Apple itself is doing a great job in this regard, but there is also a whole industry of other companies and researchers developing new and innovative ways to use the iPhone and iPad for better accessibility.
A new story today from Semafor highlights ongoing work by New York-based company Synchron, which is working on computational brain implant technology that allows patients to control an iPhone or iPad using their brain.
According to the report, Synchron currently has six patients using its “Synchron Switch” device, which is surgically implanted into the patient’s brain. Synchron is the first company to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to “conduct clinical trials on a computational brain implant.”
Tom Oxley, co-founder and CEO of Synchron, explained to Semafor that the skills needed to implement the sensors are “common”.
An array of sensors made by Synchron called a “Stentrode” is inserted into the upper part of the brain via a blood vessel in a minimally invasive procedure. It is controlled wirelessly using the Synchron Switch from the patient’s chest.
Oxley said the skills needed to implant the Stentrode are commonplace and that this level of simplicity is key to the company’s business strategy. Implanting a device directly on the brain would require neurosurgery, a discipline that lacks doctors.
There is currently one patient who uses the Synchron Switch with an Apple device: Rodney Gotham, a retired software salesman in Melbourne, Australia, who had the device surgically implanted in his brain at Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Gorham suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a debilitating disease better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He relies on his iPad as his primary means of communication. The Synchron Switch works by converting Gorham’s thoughts into action on the iPad screen. When he “thinks about tapping his foot, his iPad registers that as a tap on the screen,” the report explains.
As it stands, the research done by Synchron is still in its early stages, but the company is believed to be well ahead of the competition. The report points out that Apple itself is devoting research efforts to similar technology, funding a Carnegie Mellon University team working on human-computer interfaces.
“We’re excited about iOS and Apple products because they’re so ubiquitous,” said Synchron’s co-founder and CEO. “And it would be the first brain switch input in the device.”
This type of accessibility research is amazing to see and even more amazing when it focuses on Apple devices that are already so prevalent. Many people already rely heavily on Apple devices to meet their accessibility needs, so additional breakthroughs like this bring more functionality to platforms people are already familiar with.
My mum was diagnosed with ALS in May this year and has relied exclusively on her iPad for communication since February when she started losing her ability to speak. Since then, she has completely lost her ability to speak and can no longer use her hands or arms. Despite this, she is able to communicate with us through an app on her iPad Pro called Vocable, which uses head tracking to allow her to type using an on-screen keyboard.
Here is one of my all-time favorite photos, taken at my wedding in July. My mom uses the Vocable app on her iPad to communicate with my wife, Emily, saying, “You look beautiful.”
There are also a number of other options, including Toby Dynavox’s TD Pilot, which adds eye tracking directly to an iPad. Apple itself has head tracking technology built into iOS and iPadOS, and there are countless third-party apps besides Vocable.
Research such as that done by Synchron will not be widely available in my mother’s lifetime. Still, it’s amazing to think what this kind of technology will do for generations to come. There are far-reaching implications not only for people with ALS, but for many other diseases as well.
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