BlinkTalk users never smile or even nod to indicate their joy with Bryan Brown’s award-winning application. They can’t. They have no muscle control below their eyes. But with this one app, an Ultrabook™ device, and the power of electromyography, many "locked-in" patients now have the ability to communicate verbally, perhaps for the first time in many years.
App Innovation Winner Brings Speech to the Silent
Bryan Brown, a 20-year programming and development engineering veteran, ran
across a posting for the Intel®
App Innovation Contest on CodeProject, he saw a golden
opportunity. This was a chance to take his knowledge of C# and Windows*
Presentation Foundation (WPF) from a full-time day job writing software for
chemical-processing instruments and apply it toward something new and amazing: helping
paraplegics and others with no ability to control their bodies regain some
ability to communicate. His journey from an idea to a contest-winning
application able to change people’s lives shows just how fluid and accessible
the development process can be.
How BlinkTalk Works
performs binary encoding of the blink patterns detected by a NeuroSky MindWave* device and
translates those codes into preset phrases that through speech synthesis can be
selected and spoken by the host computer. The MindWave measures intentionally
directed EMG activity (blink strength), which in turn become numeric values
that ultimately manifest as communication from the user.
found that the Intel® reference Ultrabook™ device was the
perfect platform for both developing the BlinkTalk app and using it in the
field. In the photo, NeuroSky’s MindWave* headset dangles on the right side of
began BlinkTalk’s development by scouring the NeuroSky SDK and its supporting
documentation. Much of his Microsoft Windows*-based development work, done in Microsoft
Visual Studio* 2010 Pro, builds on the .NET framework, so he found a suitable
DLL for the job (Brian Peek’s ThinkGearNET).
This driver essentially wraps itself around the NeuroSky DLL. With this in
place, the C#/WPF-based BlinkTalk app fires an event handler whenever a
monitored brainwave signal changes its state within a given range.
the MindWave event handler fires," said Brown, "it updates four private data
members: Attention, Meditation, BlinkStrength, and PoorSignal. These variables
are used by two continuously running threads that are implemented in
BlinkTalk—one to do the processing and the other for the user interface. The
user interface thread creates a dispatcher that allows the processing thread
and the user interface access to the same data members."
Inside the Interface
essentially consists of three pages: the main operational screen, an Edit
Settings screen, and a Help/About page. This first version of BlinkTalk offers
16 possible blink-phrases, based on four data bits (42). Brown kept
the number low in order to streamline the initial design for the Intel App
Innovation Contest. The 16 blink-phrases were chosen by default, but all are
customizable, as are the program parameters, such as blink threshold and
operational screen presents a list of 16 possible statements: 15 phrases, such
as "I feel OK" and "Where are we going," and silence. Each of these statements
correlates to a string of four binary True/False (T/F) values. For example,
TFFT can mean "I like it." BlinkTalk scrolls through each of the four letter
positions, and the user must time his or her blink to coincide with the cursor
resting on each position. The strength of the blink determines whether a value
registers as T or F.
The photo on
the right shows an early prototype design of the BlinkTalk application,
complete with the USB-based NeuroSky MindWave* controller. Real-time EMG graphs
are shown on the left. Bryan Brown decided to remove the graphs from the final
app interface in order to make it simpler and more streamlined.
controlling the app at the PC can fine-tune sensor thresholds to optimize hard
and soft blink values. They can also change the scan rate, or the delay between
the input cursor moving from one column to the next. Little additional
configuration is necessary.
the user selects a blink-phrase, the application plays the phrase through the
computer’s speakers. Although speech functionality is not necessary to
BlinkTalk’s core objective—providing immobilized people with the ability to
have limited communication—the ability to have thoughts spoken aloud through
the application can be gratifying.
enable this functionality, BlinkTalk uses the System.Speech.Synthesis
namespace, a quick yet robust way to add speech to .NET applications. This
namespace holds the classes the application needs in order to interface with
the OS’s speech synthesis engine. In essence, the app generates a "speaker"
object, and the object’s Speak method gets called when the detected phrase
string’s parameter value is assessed.
BlinkTalk uses a string array to hold spoken phrases," said Brown. "A static
AppData class was implemented with methods for saving and retrieving this data
along with other application configuration settings, such as blink strength
threshold and scan rate. Right now, the number of available phrases is rather
limited, but ultimately we want to implement a context-sensitive menu approach
to allow blink-navigating to a larger selection of phrases. A database-driven
architecture may prove to be a better approach to expanding BlinkTalk's
Final Design Decisions
reaching the second round of the contest, Brown procured a Code Signing
Certificate from Comodo (a prerequisite for publication on the Intel AppUp® center) and received
a touch-screen-enabled Ultrabook device from Intel. According to Brown, the
addition of touch screen functionality helped to significantly improve
BlinkTalk’s usability and ease operators’ learning curves.
ability for a therapist to use touch during patient training sessions, as
opposed to keyboard and mouse manipulation, can greatly simplify the interactive
learning process," said Brown. "Furthermore, patients with limited hand
mobility might be able to augment their interactions with the software and
achieve even greater flexibility and depth in how they can communicate."
is a direct link between touch functionality and UI design, and this extends
even to the choice of desktop interface. With a Windows 8-based Ultrabook
device in hand, Brown had to make the difficult choice between developing for
the conventional Windows desktop or for Microsoft’s newer Windows 8-style
interface. He opted for the former, even though BlinkTalk has a Windows 8 panel
type of appearance. Buttons are oversized and cued for single-touch response
for easier operator navigation. Brown noted that "the color coordination and
the layout of ‘the Windows 8’ UI lends itself to making the experience as
simple and straightforward as possible."
screen capture shows BlinkTalk as it finally looked when published to the Intel
AppUp® center. Note the Microsoft Windows* 8-themed, touch-sensitive tiles and
color scheme. At right, Bryan Brown holds up one of the 16 blink-phrases while
silently selecting that phrase through the BlinkTalk UI on the left.
took the Windows desktop path in part because of his own experience and
familiarity with multi-threaded UI design for desktop apps in WPF XAML. Nevertheless,
Brown appreciates that the market and need for more mobile-centric apps is
growing. He is continuing his studies of Windows 8 development and focusing on
The Port Problem
first challenge Brown encountered was similar to the one every developer
working on his or her own faces: He had to do everything single-handedly, from
coding and debugging to video production and website design.
other human hurdle Brown faced was end-user training. He assumed that the
ability to select T/F bit values by blink strength as the app scrolled across
the bit positions on-screen would be straightforward and intuitive. Yet trials with
able-bodied test subjects revealed that the average user needs about two hours
of blink training to become proficient. Fortunately, NeuroSky offers games that
can help make the training process more entertaining, and developers are free
to create their own training titles.
of the chief technical obstacles Brown faced focused on drivers and port
allocation. The original MindWave device used a Bluetooth* connection from the
headset to a USB dongle plugged into the Ultrabook device. Every time a user
plugged in the dongle, Windows 8 overrode the MindWave driver with a generic
USB driver and created a virtual COM port (COM1, COM2, and so on) associated
with the MindWave. Occasionally, though, after unplugging and replugging the
dongle, the OS swapped not only the assigned COM port but also the associated
device driver, requiring the operator to access the Windows Device Manager and
manually change the settings in order to get the MindWave functioning again.
only NeuroSky’s own driver and the third-party .NET wrapper in play, Brown was
unable to find a direct fix for this problem. Fortunately, the Ultrabook device
provided a workaround. Because the Ultrabook device integrates Bluetooth
functionality, Brown was able to connect directly to the "mobile" version of
the MindWave. This model dispenses with the USB dongle because it was designed
primarily for Android* and iOS* devices, although it also works under Windows.
Without a USB device in the configuration, the problem vanished.
Keeping Threads Straight
also encountered a synchronization problem with the threads, which proved more
troublesome than the driver and port allocation issue. In the first version of
BlinkTalk, the application constantly fired data along one thread to
incrementally advance an array. A second thread used the resulting value from
the first thread to access array elements. Unfortunately, this thread implementation
was flawed and lacked the necessary exception handling. With only one month
between initial work and contest submission, Brown had overlooked this flawed
synchronization, which sometimes yielded random runtime errors and crashed the
application. The mistake became evident only after publication and only when
running Windows 8, not Windows 7.
can customize any of the 16 possible spoken phrases as well as adjust the app’s
blink strength threshold, how quickly the app scans from one input column to
the next, and which COM port should be used for the MindWave* device.
managed to find the root of the problem through a long debugging process in
Visual Studio 2010 followed by extensive endurance testing. Intel support representatives
worked with Brown throughout the remediation process, even going so far as to purchase
a MindWave device for their own BlinkTalk testing. This allowed Intel to
confirm the problem and help Brown resolve it. This level of assistance was a
significant benefit to Brown because it not only uncovered an operational issue
but also revealed some of the complexities of using the software from a user experience
perspective. For instance, Brown found that what seems obvious to a developer
may sometimes be confusing to an end user. Intel's support allowed Brown to
release a BlinkTalk version 1.1 update on the Intel AppUp center in short
order, which included more extensive instructions on the application’s use and
time you develop software that interacts with external devices, you have timing
issues, timing constraints, and timing concerns," Brown said. "There are issues
associated with streaming data over an Ethernet connection, with latency and
devices reacting to what you’re doing. This approach to programming is much
more dynamic compared to the type of programming that some developers are accustomed
to, where they rely on responding to user input in displaying data and that
type of thing."
the board, Brown found Intel’s resources and support very helpful in his
development process. For instance, a tutorial video on the Intel® Developer
Zone allowed him to construct the silent installer necessary for MSI image
creation so he could submit BlinkTalk to the Intel AppUp center. The video was
so effective that Brown was able to get the routine right on the first try. He
also found that the questions he posted on CodeProject forums were answered
"almost immediately." Thanks to these available resources, Brown encountered no
serious problems during the creation and submission of BlinkTalk.
Lessons and Looking Ahead
Ultrabook device that Intel provided proved essential in ways Brown hadn’t anticipated.
From a strict Windows-based x86 processing standpoint, any PC could have served
for the BlinkTalk project’s needs. However, Brown was accustomed to working
with touch screen interactivity from all of the analysis instruments at his day
job. He laughed about there being "times when I would sit down at a
conventional laptop and actually start touching the screen, expecting something
Ultrabook device bridged these two input paradigms—conventional desktop and Windows
8-style touch interface—plus it had the power and flexibility to become his
main programming platform for other projects he is working on through
Human-Machine Technologies. In the field, Brown finds that the compact size and
light weight of the Ultrabook device are ideal for fitting into tight bedside
patient environments while still providing a convenient keyboard for operators
main interface screen divides into four basic areas: blink input values (T/F), a
list of possible blink-phrases, settings and input data readouts, and a set of
four buttons primarily meant for accessing settings options and stopping or
exiting the app.
really want to design with larger controls and think in terms of how people
will interact with the screen, navigating," Brown said. "Depending on the
computer, you can have parallax problems, and, depending on the viewing angle,
it can be difficult to have the accuracy to touch small things. Approach your
UI design with those factors in mind. Windows 8 panels can facilitate ease-of-use
for a touch application."
won the Healthcare category of the 2012 Intel App Innovation Contest. Before the
contest, Brown had no interest in putting his applications into app stores. However,
going through the process with the Intel AppUp center showed him that bringing
a new app to market can be quick and straightforward, inspiring him to pursue
such avenues in the future.
Brown is not only focusing on more contest participation and pursuing
technology grants, but he is also helping others to explore them.
want to expand my website to include open-source projects and more information
for developers who are interested in learning how to do this type of
programming," he said. "I think there’s a bit of a void in some developers’
toolboxes. Many lack the experience to be able to interact with physical devices.
I want to use my site as a vehicle to help people bridge that gap."
success in app development doesn’t require extensive financial or even time
resources. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a little push. Bryan Brown
illustrates the impact that grassroots efforts such as vendor contests and
coding forums can have on developers and the world at large.
Brown reviewed several information sources while writing BlinkTalk, beginning
with background reading on brainwave
technology and a thorough review of the input device’s technical documentation
at developer.neurosky.com. After exhausting
the vendor’s resources, he turned to ThinkGearNET’s third-party library, which provided
easy use of the NeuroSky headset through .NET. Bryan used the Intel AppUp®
Developer certification tool for creating simple MSI setup files and Comodo for procuring a
security certificate. Check out the detailed BlinkTalk article at CodeProject and a live use
video at http://youtu.be/YFa9b01u6lo. Find additional
information on Brown and his projects at Human-Machine Technologies at http://human-machinetechnologies.com.
of this document are used with permission and copyright 2012 by CodeProject.
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All products, dates, and plans are based on current expectations and subject to
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