Professor Stephen Hawking has been using a specially configured wheelchair since 1997. Before that, his wheelchair was a common powered wheelchair. Today, wheelchair of Stephen Hawking wheelchair is probably the most sci-fi looking wheelchair. A lot of people have a lot of questions about his wheelchair. So, today, we will explain how this special chair works.
Wheelchair of Professor Hawking
- In 1985, Professor Hawking contracted severe pneumonia and he had to be operated for tracheotomy. As a result he lost his ability to speak. Due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) he had already lost movement in his hands. So, after losing speech, he initially communicated by raising an eyebrow when he was shown alphabets on a spelling card.
- In 1986, Walter Woltosz, CEO of Word Plus, presented a computer program called Equalizer to Professor Hawking. This program had a database of about 3,000 commonly used words. The professor could select the desired words with a click. These words were collected by the program to make sentences. This program ran on a desktop computer and thus the professor could use it only in one place.
- David, husband of Elaine Mason (professor’s nurse who he later married), was a computer engineer and he made Equalizer to run of a smaller computer attached to the wheelchair of Professor Hawking. Now, he could use the program wherever he went on his wheelchair.
- In 1997, his powered wheelchair was fitted with a speech synthesizer. This computer system was sponsored by Intel® Corporation. It is a tablet computer attached to his powered wheelchair.
- This speech synthesizer works pretty much like Equalizer — but it can also convert the selected words into speech using a text-to-speech software. Thus, Professor Hawking can speak using the voice of someone else.
- Because his disability is progressive in nature, Professor Hawking is losing use of more and more muscles. Now the famous scientist uses a cheek muscle to select letters. Computer slowly goes through all the letters and when he twitches the muscle computer stops and selects the letter.
- The sensor that detects the cheek muscle movement is attached to his glasses.
- The current tablet computer is Lenovo Yoga 260 with Intel i7 processor with 512GB SSD drive. Operating system is Windows 10.
- Synthesizer software is called Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit (ACAT). This open source software has also been developed by Intel.
- Tablet computer attached to wheelchair gets power from the batteries of wheelchair.
- Earlier Professor Hawking could speak about 15 words per minute. But now, with his deteriorating condition, he can manage only one or two words per minute.
- Scientists and engineers at Intel keeps of refining computer algorithm to predict what he wants to say.
- When he has to give a lecture, he beforehand writes the whole lecture in computer word-by-word from the database. He then saves the lecture on his computer. While delivering the lecture, he sends one paragraph at a time to the speech synthesizer. The software converts this paragraph into speech.
These were some of the important facts about the wheelchair of Stephen Hawking. Let us know if you have more specific information on this topic. Thank you!