Voice control without speaking

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What looks like a badly designed gadget could feature in a whole range of applications in the future. After all, the unusual combination of a headset and “chin bandage” can hear even what is not said.

Everyone talks silently while reading. Originally, this was only a step on the way to learning to read – when we still pronounced letters out loud and then gradually became silent. At least on the outside. On the inside, we still speak – silently and unconsciously. When reading, our brain constantly sends signals to various muscles in the face, larynx and tongue – just as it does when we actually speak.

This “subvocalization” process is the basis for “Alterego” – a surprising development from the MIT Media Lab. It translates these very muscle movements into language. In order to do this, the headset uses electrodes to record the neuromuscular signals primarily on the jaw because they are strongest here. Machine learning algorithms then ensure that the words spoken silently are recognized correctly.

During tests involving ten test persons, the system recognized over 90 percent of words correctly. The words were deliberately subvocalized here. But that is not all. Conversely, the device can transmit vibrations to the inner ear via bones in the face and thus communicate silently with the wearer without the need for a loudspeaker.

Voice control with a sensor mask

For games of chess or examinations, the possibilities are endless. Assignments or tasks could be sent and the solutions received silently. With the current design, however, the system is not exactly discreet.

A more sensible application would be communication in loud environments, for example machine halls or runways. The new headset from MIT could also make voice control systems more “environmentally friendly”.

In the foreseeable future, however, there is no need to look out for revolutionary headsets. The size of the device, the voice recognition rate and the training time are just some of the obstacles which will prevent the technology being commercialized in the near future.


Alterego (Image: MIT)

"Alterego" translates muscle movements into language. (Image: MIT).