NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In its latest effort to combat motor neuron diseases that have afflicted such people as leading astrophysicist Prof. Stephen Hawking, Intel (INTC) plans to release its newly designed communications software to the public in January.
For the past three years, Intel has worked with Hawking, who suffers from the degenerative disease that has slowly paralyzed the professor. Currently, only his facial muscles are operable and are used for the communications software system. The professor, who was recently the subject of the movie "The Theory of Everything," approached the chip maker with a request to improve the communications software system he had been using for decades.
Under his old communications system, Hawking had gotten to the point where he could type only one word a minute and would need the assistance of others to perform such tasks as attaching a file to an email, or opening documents and programs on his computer. But after working with Hawking and treating him like a living scientific experiment, Intel began to understand Hawking's pain points with the existing system and was able to greatly improve his typing rate and give him greater independence when working with his communications system.
"Professor Hawking has been using a system that dates back two decades and it's based on switching and scrolling an array of letters displayed on a screen via a switch that's attached to his eyeglasses," Horst Haussecker, principal engineer at the Intel Computational Imaging Lab, said in an interview with TheStreet. "He can no longer precisely select these letters due to the worsening of the disease, so we now allow him to control his entire computer system, providing contextual information for any application."
Intel designed the Assistive Context Aware Toolkit, which has various software packages designed to improve the way Hawking's communications system operates. For example, in the past, if Hawking typed the wrong letter on his computer, it would suggest several words but they would be wrong because it was based on the wrong letter. With the new software, it's smarter and will detect that Hawking had typed the wrong letter and offer up correct words. The technology is similar to that used in smartphones when texting or sending emails. Intel teamed up with SwiftKey to provide that feature to the professor.
The chip giant, however, developed a way for the professor to save time when typing by creating software that would guess what his next words would be based on the previous word he typed. For example, anytime Hawking typed the word "black," the next word that would come up would be "hole." Intel trained the system to learn Hawking's writing patterns, based on reviewing his emails, authored books and papers, as well as other documents he wrote.
Intel also designed a software layer that would appear on top of the apps Hawking uses, which would take the most commonly used features of that app like printing a document or pasting text and have them readily accessible for him to use. Basically, the software conforms and adapts to his needs.
"Medicine has not been able to cure me, so I rely on technology to help me communicate and live," Hawking said in a statement. "The development of this system has the potential to improve the lives of disabled people around the world and is leading the way in terms of human interaction and the ability to overcome communication boundaries that once stood in the way."
"By testing an extreme case of that disability with Professor Hawking, we are able to identify a lot of features that would be useful for people at different stages of this disease," Haussecker said. An estimated 3 million people suffer from motor neuron diseases and quadriplegia.
Intel has patented some of its work on the project, but it will nonetheless make the toolkit free for others to use and expand upon. The software, in essence, will serve as a template for further development. Intel invites the scientific community to utilize the open source code to help others and expects to announce where developers can find the code in the coming weeks.
"It will be widely accessible to anyone who is willing to take it and build another version of it for someone with a similar disability," Haussecker said. "There's no one size fits all when it comes to people with disabilities."
-Written by Scott Gamm in New York.