Voice for the Voiceless OC student project gives man with ALS a lift in life

By Josh Watson & Wes McKinzie (98)

For patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), losing the ability to speak is devastating.

Students at Oklahoma Christian realized the eyes are the key to giving people with ALS a voice again.

A team of OC engineering students has developed VisuALS, which features eye-tracking technology and text-to-speech functionality that allows patients to communicate.

The project originated a few years ago when OC graduate engineering student Ash Srinivas wanted to help a friend with ALS; his friend had lost control of his voice and muscles.

Ash and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Steve Maher developed the beginnings of a prototype, and Ash’s friend provided invaluable feedback before he passed away.

Several OC undergraduate engineers made the project their mission and made improvements over the next couple of years, setting the stage for a demonstration to an ALS support group in January.

A man named Carl Phelps used the system for 45 minutes to audibly speak for the first time in months.

The first thing he said to his wife, Janice, was “I love you.”

Carl’s health had deteriorated quickly. ALS had taken away his ability to speak or eat.

He was losing five pounds a week, and he desperately wanted to communicate with his loved ones.

Janice implored the team to act fast.

“Carl will be counting the days until he hears from you,” she said.

The VisuALS software was still in development and wasn’t stable yet, but Maher encouraged the team to develop a solution to Carl’s urgent need.

“When finished, VisuALS will allow a user to e-mail, browse the web, keep a journal, control lights and sound an alarm, in addition to the text-to-speech functionality,” said OC entrepreneur-in-residence Russ McGuire (MBA 16), the team’s coach and mentor. “But all Carl wanted was text-to-speech. Professor Maher reminded the team they had an extra eye-tracking bar, and they confirmed that Carl’s existing tablet could run the software.”

In late January, the team installed the software and configured the hardware in Carl’s home in Chickasha, Oklahoma.

“Carl’s lively and witty personality was able to shine through thanks to the VisuALS app, giving him the freedom to converse with us as he wished,” said Aubrey Gonzalez, a senior electrical and computer engineering major. “The visit ended in happy tears, with Carl and Janice saying a prayer for our future success in this endeavor.”

Using VisuALS to “type” his thoughts, Carl said, “This literally gave me a lift in life. It was a lifesaver. I love this class and I thank God for them.” Janice said OC’s system was a timely, precious gift after Carl lost the ability to use other communication aids.

“We’re just thankful for what all it can do right now, and I don’t know what we would have done without it,” Janice said. “I’m just really grateful for OC. There are no words to tell you how much we appreciate it.”

Armed with this life-changing system and an innovative business plan, OC’s students won the 2017 Love’s Entrepreneur’s Cup competition.

It was yet another challenge met by the VisuALS team, comprised of Aubrey and fellow ECE majors Josh Bilello, Preston Kemp, and Tyler Sriver, plus accounting major Jevon Seaman and marketing major Kevin McGuire.

“Winning first place is a testament to the hard work and dedication of these great students,” Maher said. “They met every challenge head-on, and they wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I know their work will improve the quality of life for ALS patients.”

Just as multiple OC students brought VisuALS to where it is today, more students will take up the cause to take it into the future.

With Russ’ guidance, Jevon and other young entrepreneurs hope to take VisuALS to market at a $3,000 price point, just a fraction of the $20,000 cost for existing systems.

The business plan also features crowdfunding assistance, which will make VisuALS even more affordable and accessible to people in need.

For now, though, the VisuALS system has given Carl his voice back, and he’s helped identify ways to make it better for future patients.

“This relationship gave the team real-world feedback and helped a precious child of God reconnect with his family,” Russ said.

Spring 2017

View more stories from the Spring 2017 issue of Vision magazine.