Singapore researchers hope to plug assistive technology gaps with a bite

Researchers at National University of Singapore build a mouthguard that they say can interpret bite patterns to control electronic devices such as smartphones, addressing limitations of assistive technologies that require certain conditions to operate effectively.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

A research team at National University of Singapore (NUS) has built a "smart mouthguard" that can interpret and convert bite patterns into instructions to control electronic devices, such as smartphones, computers, and wheelchairs. It is touted to address limitations of current assistive technologies that require certain conditions to operate effectively. 

Weighing 7 grams, the mouthguard also requires less training experience compared to existing assistive technologies, according to the NUS researchers. The "bite-controlled optoelectronic system" was designed by researchers from the university's Department of Chemistry alongside collaborators from China's Tsinghua University, NUS said. 

The Singapore university noted that current assistive technologies offered people with disability independence, but had drawbacks. Voice recognition, for instance, needed significant operating memory and environments that were not noisy, while eye-tracking technologies required a camera to be mounted in front of the user, causing fatigue. 

Brain-computer interfaces, which had improved in recent years, remained invasive and required cumbersome wired instruments, NUS said. Developed to aid people with limited dexterity or neurological disorders, assistive technologies currently were subject to environmental interference, costly to acquire and maintain, and lacked control accuracy.

In comparison, dental occlusion created unique patterns, provided precision control, and required minimal skill. The NUS researchers looked to leverage these traits when they developed their assistive technology.

Embedded with pressure sensors, the smart mouthguard can detect bite patterns and translate these into data inputs with an accuracy rate of 98%, according to NUS. 

The sensors contain contact pads with an array of different coloured phosphors, which are substances that emitted light in response to pressure. With each bite, the contact pads mechanically deform and emit light in different colours and levels of intensity. These are measured and analysed using machine learning algorithms. The data then is used to remotely control and operate the electronic device.

According to NUS, the mouthguard potentially could be used to facilitate healthcare devices, such as smart electronic skin, as well as dental diagnosis.

"We have demonstrated that our novel sensors can distinguish mechanical deformations, including strain, compression and bending, making them applicable to multifunctional mechanical sensing applications, such as miniaturised force sensing, flexible electronics, artificial skin, and dental diagnosis," said Liu Xiaogang, who led the NUS research team. 

Costing SG$100 ($69.75) to produce in the lab, the smart mouthguard could cost substantially less to manufacture in mass production, the researchers said. The mouthguard also could be designed to fit users with different tooth patterns or who wore dentures, they added.

The NUS team currently is looking for opportunities to validate the device in a clinical setting, such as nursing homes and care centres. 


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