In our Q&A series, The Lightbulb, we ask innovators and entrepreneurs to tell us about how they turned their ideas into reality. This week, we talk to Dr Sarvnaz Taherian who’s helped develop technology that allows physically disabled individuals to communicate via blinking.
For most individuals, using a phone or laptop couldn’t be easier. But for thousands of people around the world, scrolling, swiping and clicking can be a lot harder, even impossible, to do. They might be paralysed from the neck down or they might have difficulty speaking, leaving them excluded from a major tool for communication in today’s world.
This is where Nous comes in. Developed by Auckland-based social enterprise Thought-Wired, Nous consists of a wearable headset that allows individuals to control assistive software by blinking. While the hardware for Nous is manufactured by a third-party company, the software is made by Thought-Wired’s multidisciplinary team who have been developing novel assistive technologies for almost seven years.
Now, as the company ramps sales and partnerships worldwide after a long period of research and development, co-founder Dr Sarvnaz Taherian explains how the concept of using brain waves (and blinks) came about.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Nous.
Nous is an assistive solution for people with very severe physical disabilities. These are people who are essentially ‘locked’ into their bodies, meaning they’re completely paralysed and unable to move or speak.
Nous uses electrical signals produced by the body to interface with computers. In that sense, a person doesn’t need to have much physical capacity can use it. At the moment, we’re focused on using the electrical signals of the eyes and the brain. Our secret sauce is in the algorithms that interpret and process these electrical signals and translate them into control signals to communicate through computers.
What were you doing prior to joining to Thought-Wired?
I was studying to become a psychologist and I was supposed to be doing my clinical training. But [at the time] I thought that I was too young and immature to become an actual practising psychologist, so I got a job with the Ministry of Health doing the national health survey instead. But I found that really boring and unsatisfying so I was looking for other creative avenues and that’s when I saw Dmitry (Selitskiy, Thought-Wired CEO) post things online about this project that he wanted to start.
Who is the team behind Thought-Wired?
So it’s me, Dmitry, his father Konstantin (Selitskiy) and James (Pau). We all came together initially to do the University of Auckland’s business planning competition Spark (now called Velocity). The idea was to enter this competition and make it in the top three so we could get seed funding. We came runner-up in the competition so we got $25,000 in seed funding as well as three months at the Icehouse… [At the time] the product only looked at using the electrical signals of the brain to access the computer.
How did the idea for Nous come about?
Dmitry’s motivation behind starting this project was because his cousin has a very severe case of cerebral palsy. He’s completely paralysed and he’s been that way since birth so he has no way of communicating with people apart from looking up and down to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. So that was his motivation: to see if we can use this technology to help people like his cousin.
So what happened next? How did you go about making that idea into reality?
What happened next was a lot of research and development. We found that people had been researching [this technology] for about 50 years but nothing had translated from the realm of R&D into the commercial world. We were kind of shocked to learn that people had been working on this technology for so long but nothing had really happened with it, especially for people with disabilities [since] the main focus in most of the research was to develop assistive technologies to help people with disabilities.
It was at this point that we realised we needed to do some proper academic research to look at the translation of this research into something that was commercially available. [So I went back to university and] did a PhD looking specifically at user needs and looking at it through multiple stakeholder lenses. So I looked at the needs of people with disabilities as well as their carers’ needs and their therapists’ needs. I also looked at how government policy and legislation actually impacted how people could acquire and use that technology because that was one of the major barriers.
The other thing that had been holding back the technology from being used by people with disabilities was that the scientists and engineers who’d been researching the technology had been researching it with typically able-bodied individuals. You can’t just assume that type of research will translate to people with various types of disabilities. So that’s another thing we did differently. We worked with people with disabilities from day one to really understand how they would use the technology, what they would need to get out of that technology, and how we would serve them.
Nous is based around the motion of blinking. Where did that idea come from?
That was by accident actually! Because blinking is picked up by the same sensor that sits on your forehead, we’d been using it (blinking) for demo purposes. But through our workshops and user testing sessions, we found that people with disabilities and therapists were really falling in love with the blink access method because it was so simple, it wasn’t tiring to use, and the tech was attached to the person. So whether the person was sitting in a wheelchair or lying down, it didn’t matter, and they didn’t have to be sitting directly in front of a screen to use it.
[It’s also] an easier technology to learn to use than brain interface because brain interface requires you to train your mind. It’s quite an abstract thing, especially for people who can’t communicate, which is why we decided to launch Nous as our first product because it’s a much simpler and elegant technology.
Is Nous able to distinguish between regular blinking and when you’re blinking to try and communicate with it?
Yes. In order for it to be a comfortable communication system for people, we want them to still be able to blink naturally. So our system learns how you blink ‘naturally’ and then it learns how you blink intentionally. It learns to ignore your natural blinks and only use your intentional blinks to access the computer.
Finally, what can we expect for the rest of 2019?
Our main goal this year if we get funding – fingers crossed – is to amp up the R&D into brain interface. We’re also going to continue to push international sales. We’ve been international since we launched last year but we really need to push this and look at partnerships with other technology companies. [Partnering with someone like] Microsoft would be a dream come true.