In this column in June, the focus was on in-body and on-body communications made possible by implantable radio transceiver chips developed by IC suppliers like Zarlink Semiconductor. It was prompted by the keynote talk given by Prof. Ryuji Kohno of Yokohama National University at the IEEE MTT-S International Microwave Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii. According to the keynoter, medical info-communication technology (ICT) is the next frontier for advanced wireless communications. It will be needed to address the emerging aging population problem around the world. Thus, taking real-time medical sensing and care from a distance to a whole new level.

This month, I read an interesting article, published in Georgia Institute of Technology's Research Horizons, based on the development work done at the Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC). Co-directed by the Georgia Institute and Shepherd Center, an Atlanta-based rehabilitation hospital, RERC is extending the benefits of wireless technologies to the disabled. Some noteworthy projects under way at the RERC center include a wireless captioning system for the deaf or those with a hearing disability, wireless remote for patients with limited mobility, creating a gateway to send wireless emergency announcements, such as tornado warnings, to people with disabilities. This enables the deaf to more efficiently use their mobile devices to access enhanced 911 services. While others are creating talking Braille signs for those with vision impairments.

In reality, Georgia Institute's RERC center is helping open the doors to people with disabilities. As it widens the wireless world for the disabled, it promises to enhance their quality of life and attempts to provide them with new opportunities that were unthinkable a few years ago.

For instance, using IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless technology, researchers at RERC have demonstrated a wireless captioning system that takes a prerecorded text and synchronizes it with the film. It then transmits the captions to the user's PDA or microdisplay that incorporates the receiver and software developed by the RERC. Presently, though the technology is limited to the Windows mobile platform, the goal is to extend it to other cellular phone platforms. According to senior research scientist Leanne West, the wireless captioning system will debut in movie theaters under the name SightLine HotsSpots. “Those who are deaf or hard of hearing will be able to go to movie theaters and enjoy Hollywood's latest films,” stated West.

Another novel application developed here is a sip & puff wireless remote control for the Apple iPod. As a result, the Apple iPod can be operated using sip & puff pressure switches by individuals with limited mobility due to cervical-level spinal cord injury. Using commercially available wireless remote control for the iPod, RERC developers were able to successfully interface the wireless controller with sip & puff switches so that users could play, pause and fast forward through a song list on the iPod. Here, the play/pause is wired to a “sip” pressure switch and track/forward to a “puff” pressure switch. The wireless controller identified in this case is the AirClick by Griffin Technology. This work was presented by the Shepherd Center researchers at the recent Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) in Phoenix, Ariz. Meanwhile, based on user feedback, the scientists continue to add more bells and whistles to this system, as well as improving the reliability of the device.

Likewise, other projects under way include talking Braille signs for providing directions to people with vision impairments, Wi-Fi-enabled smart cell phones, and many more. A joint effort between RERC researchers and Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center, talking Braille was conceived as the method for providing access to Braille signage at a distance.

“Wireless technologies are growing in importance for users who are disabled and those who are not,” said Mike Jones, Shepherd Center's vice president of research and technology. He believes that improving usability for people with disabilities will improve usability for everyone. And this is a driving force behind Wireless RERC's work, according to Jones.