Waiting to exhale

TALK, an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device nominated for the Google Computer Science Award 2014, converts the user’s breath to synthesised speech. Moeena Halim speaks to Arsh Shah Dilbagi, its 16-year-old founder from Panipat

Four years ago, when Arsh Shah Dilbagi demanded a PlayStation, his father flatly refused. Instead, the 12-year-old got a Lego Mindstorms kit, which includes software and hardware to create customisable robots. “It changed my perception about learning and motivated me to create innovative devices,” reveals Dilbagi.

Over the years, he has built a prototype of an unmanned military vehicle, a home automation system that recognises voice commands and a robot pet dog. The class 12 student’s greatest motivation is to help change the world through his innovations.

Inspired by physicist Stephen Hawking, Dilbagi began working on a device to aid speech impairment last year.

Hawking’s augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device has helped him survive his degenerative disease, but as the teenager points out, it is far from being an effective solution in the mainstream. “It takes the AAC device 60 seconds to read an average word, comprising about four to six letters. He has to twitch his cheeks to select letters on the virtual keyboard. The Intel processor, which the device uses, hasn’t changed much since it was built 10 years ago. Besides, his battery-operated wheelchair alone costs R10 lakh, which is too expensive,” says Dilbagi. 

A 100 million people across the globe suffer from developmental disorders leading to speech impairment. Dilbagi found that the three existing AAC devices are too expensive and too cumbersome. “Apart from the device Hawking uses, there’s one which tracks the position of the eyeballs but that’s too strenuous. The third is a brain computer interface, which has the user put on a big helmet. It’s not commercially available yet,” explains Dilbagi.

Dilbagi wants TALK — his more affordable, faster, more portable device — to be accessible to everyone. “Existing devices use brain-computer or eye movements; the tongue was an option too. But I thought of using a person’s breathing patterns,” exclaims the innovator.

Arsh Shah Dilbagi, founder of TALK

TALK includes a smartphone-sized box that ‘speaks’ the words and a ear clip that ‘reads’ the user’s exhalations. Its manufacturing cost is less than R3,000. “The pharmaceutical companies I contacted told me they’d retail it for R50,000, so I decided to manufacture it myself. I started a crowdfunding campaign in July, but it didn’t succeed,” says Dilbagi. He gathered less than $2000 of his $80,000 goal. Dilbagi, however, is determined to get TALK into the mainstream.

His design has been nominated for the Google Computer Science Award 2014. “I am travelling to the US next week. The results will be announced in the last week of September,” he says.

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