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University of Mississippi professors Greg Snyder, from left, Dwight Waddell and Paul Groggans invented a prosthetic device for stutterers that turns voice into tactile signals for an additional means of feedback.
OXFORD – An estimated 3 million Americans stutter, and three University of Mississippi professors have created a device that might help many of them.
“We call it a stuttering prosthetic,” said Paul Goggans, professor of electrical engineering. “We call it that because we want to emphasize that it’s not a cure: It’s an aid.”
The device uses an “accelerometer” to pick up vocal vibrations, filter them and amplify them through a tiny vibrator that can be held, put in a pocket or attached to skin such as under a watch band.
“What it does is pretty straightforward. How it works on the brain is a complicated question that I’m not sure anybody has the answer to,” Goggans said. “Our idea is that stuttering is caused by a failure of the internal feedback in the body. You say something, and the brain doesn’t get the message that you’ve finished, so it says, ‘Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.’ What this (device) does is to give a different path for the feedback to come so the brain gets the message.”
“The stuttering community is unrecognized and underserved,” said Gregory Snyder, associate professor of communication disorders, who is himself a stutterer. “We’re not claiming to have a cure, but it’s more or less a prosthetic that makes events of daily living easier (like eyeglasses).”
When Snyder wears the prototype, his incidence of stuttering is evident almost immediately.
“If you look at these earliest researchers, they had a clearer understanding of what stuttering is than some people in the 20th century,” Snyder said. “One of the realities is that speech feedback in whatever its format reduces stuttering frequency. This was overlooked for decades because, one, its prosthetic implementation was challenging, and two, because it was viewed from the wrong scientific model.
“When I talk, that’ll vibrate,” he said of the tactile end of the device. “That vibration is enough to reduce overstuttering by probably 80 percent.”
When Dwight Waddell came to Ole Miss in 2006, he was doing biomedical research with Parkinson’s patients.
“We saw a lot of similarity between what I was describing and what Greg was describing in totally different populations,” he said.
Parkinson’s patients often use bright colors to “unfreeze” their motor function, and their companions may effect the same change with a light touch on the arm.
That’s much how the tiny vibrations work, giving instantaneous feedback about the user’s verbal cues and miscues. Ironically, the stutterer himself may not notice the difference as much as those around him.
“I had a student who was graduating, and she said, ‘My dad is a stutterer, and he’s going to visit at Commencement.’ She asked if he could try a prototype, and I said yes, of course,” Waddell said. “He put it on and was very, very skeptical. After 20 minutes he said, ‘This just isn’t working.’ I saw his wife and daughter look at each other, turn to the dad and say, ‘Are you kidding?’ They both told him how much more relaxed he was.
“Maybe your fluency doesn’t improve that much, but the effort you have to use to communicate dramatically drops,” Waddell said. “Greg will tell you, at the end of a bad stuttering day, you’re tired.”
Snyder noted that voice-activated technology is a growing problem for stutterers.
“I was talking yesterday with a guy who has a Ford Escape with In Touch (voice-activated technology),” he said. “He tried to use the on-board voice navigation … and so when he tried to get out the address, it obviously took him to the wrong place. He actually had to stop the car, take out the key, open the door and then close it to get the computer to stop saying the wrong address.
“As we become a more voice-technology society, the stuttering community may actually be left behind, which is a frightening prospect. That’s a big deal.”
Snyder, Waddell and Goggans together hold the patent on their tactile vocal feedback device. Ole Miss has licensed the technology to Hyperion Technology Group, and Innovate Mississippi chose it as one of fewer than a dozen ideas to be presented to potential investors in the Mississippi Angel Network.
For more information, or to try a device, contact Snyder at (662) 915-1202 or firstname.lastname@example.org@journalinc.com