Researchers at MIT have developed a computer interface that lets users communicate without hands or voice. And no, it’s not reading brain waves, either.

While presenting at the 2018 Conference on Intelligent User Interface in Japan in March, researchers from the MIT Media Lab introduced AlterEgo, a wearable headset that wraps around the wearer’s ear and jaw and functions as an intelligence-augmentation device. The system can detect subvocalization, or silent speech, which is basically what people do when they read or say words in their head. AlterEgo then processes the data collected by the headset and produces a response.

AlterEgo from the MIT Media Lab 

“Our idea was: Could we have a computing platform that’s more internal, that melds human and machine in some ways and that feels like an internal extension of our own cognition?” said lead researcher Arnav Kapur. The sensors on Kapur’s headset allow the wearer to silently “speak” to the computer by thinking words. The interface then replies via the headphones, which project sound directly through the bone of the skull, leaving the ears free to hear the outside world.

Similar to a myoelectric prosthetic, which can detect when the brain sends electrical signals to the body, AlterEgo translates those signals into the user’s intended physical actions. When the wearer of the headset thinks of a word, their brain sends the signals to muscles in the face and throat. Electrode sensors on the headset happen to sit on the person’s face and jaw where those signals are strongest. Once the data is received, the device then responds to the subvocalized request.

The prototype was already part of a usability study wherein 10 users spent 15 minutes calibrating mathematical questions using subvocalization. The translation rate was 92 percent accurate, and is expected to improve with use. “I think we’ll achieve full conversation someday,” Kapur said.

AlterEgo could be useful in noisy environments or in spaces where silence is required. (It could have been a real lifesaver in A Quiet Place.) But just as prosthetics are expanding the range of movement for many, AlterEgo uses similar technology that Kapur hopes will one day allow the voiceless to communicate.