Innovative Tongue-Touch Keypad (TTK) Device Gives New Voice

Innovative Tongue-Touch Keypad (TTK) Device Gives New Voice to Resident Stacy Bibb

by Sheryl Wilde

Born 11 weeks early, Stacy Bibb weighed only two pounds at birth. He was diagnosed with severe athetoid cerebral palsy. ​

Now nearly 47 years old, Stacy weighs 80 pounds. His mental capacity is that of a 12-year-old and he has the developmental abilities of a 4-month-old. He’s quadriplegic and can’t walk, talk, or hold up his head by himself.​

The only muscles Stacy has that function normally are in his face – and he can control the use of his tongue.​

Since the tongue is directly connected to the brain by a cranial nerve, the idea was born to create a tongue-controlled device that would allow quadriplegics to effectively maneuver a power-driven wheelchair, computer mouse, cordless telephone and a wide array of devices used in daily life.​

“Stacy has been blessed to use the tongue-touch keypad (TTK) technology for more than 25 years,” says his mom, Portia.  “A company called newAbilities developed a 9-button tongue-touch keypad. That was the beginning for Stacy. He was 17 years old. Before that, he could only make noises with his tongue. He took to the TTK like a fish to water. I was so proud of him!”

Over the years, the intra-oral TTK device was upgraded from infrared to Bluetooth technology. Still in the testing phase, the project has been delayed due to the COVID pandemic.

“Sadly,” continues Portia, “Stacy’s Bluetooth TTK has been on temporary hold due to COVID manufacturing delays for the past year! Stacy had been using this new TTK for five years.​

“Thankfully, one of Stacy’s tutors, Jason Eldred, the son of a longtime friend of mine, invented a two-button tongue-touch system for Stacy this July! He got Stacy back online.”​

“I’m a professional game designer,” says Jason. “When the pandemic started, I knew that, due to some of the pandemic restrictions, Portia had to choose between having Stacy at home, or having him at Mountain Shadows. She chose to have him at home.

“My parents and I decided it was okay to extend our pandemic bubble to include Portia and Stacy. I hadn’t met Stacy before and I was a little bit reluctant about it. 

“I was a little bit afraid that as soon as I met him, I would care a lot. I was afraid I would feel guilty every time I didn’t want to go and spend time with this guy who could really use someone to hang out with. And so, for a long time, I resisted. I was like, ‘I’m not sure I want to meet him.​

“But of course, now that I actually did go and spend some time with him, I can’t imagine not doing it.​

“It started with Portia saying, ‘Please teach Stacy about video games.’”​

Jason’s first job out of game design school was working on the Sony PlayStation 4 video game The Last of Us Part II. _ In addition to many other awards, _The Last of Us Part II won over 260 [Game of the Year]( awards, more than any other game. The game was lauded for its amazing story and accessibility.

“I’ve also been a lifelong gamer. Games are, in a lot of ways, life condensed and abbreviated. You are constantly absorbing new information to solve new problems in a condensed version of real life. ​

“I think that’s why Stacy really enjoys the games he plays. He’s experiencing a new world, a new set of circumstances. He learns to solve a new set of problems. He has a new set of things to achieve. And I think for him too, it’s an abbreviation of real life that he often wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise. And he gets to do that because of the games – and I think that is awesome!​

“When I started working with Stacy, his TTK had been in the shop for a while. At that time, he could only say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by sticking out his tongue or closing his mouth. I was having a little bit of difficulty communicating with him. I could get basic stuff across, but I wanted to know more about what was going on in his head.​

“In college, I had worked on a few custom hardware projects. It’s off the beaten path of game design, but I had a blast doing it. So, when I was sitting there with Stacy, and he wasn’t able to talk, I’m like, ‘Surely, with all the stuff I’ve done, I’ve got to be able to come up with something to help him.

“In a crazy week of activity, we kept prototyping things, and getting feedback from Stacy about what he liked and didn’t like. And now we’ve been able to create a device that is actually built on a 99 cent Halloween mask. I cut the mask in half so it sticks to the bottom of his chin, and it’s his favorite. It has a metal contact that he can stick his tongue out and touch. So suddenly, his ‘yes’ is translated into a digital signal. It works great and it’s the most comfortable for him.​

“Then Portia mentioned she has a friend who works in the UCSD engineering department. He runs a class where students develop engineering projects.

“And I said, ‘I know how to work all the electronic stuff, but I’ve been trying to make a good headset with just a hot glue gun and a Halloween mask. The UCSD students, with mechanical engineering training and 3-D printing, will be able to make something more permanent and lasting.

“So, I wrote up a proposal and 5 UCSD students chose this as their engineering project! They’ve done the initial design and are getting feedback from their professor, and then they’ll bring it back to me.”

Portia’s friend, Nate Delson, who is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering had this to say about the partnership: “Stacy has been introduced to teams of UC San Diego engineering undergraduates twice now, over the years, who have worked on his tongue control interface. Not only have our students learned technical details but they have seen first hand the potential of using engineering for good, and how it can make real changes in people’s lives. It would give me utmost pleasure to see Stacy’s interface develop further and be a resource for other individuals around the world.”​

Jason agrees with social implications of this project, “What I did was more of a stop-gap measure. I was able to put together the new device in about a week and it was very cheap. So, I think the big application going forward is finding the underserved populations – people who don’t have medical insurance and can’t afford higher priced devices.​

“My device is the best interim solution I could come up with for Stacy right now. Hopefully with the UCSD team, we can get the plans documented and reproducible so they’ll be available to people who have fallen through the gaps on accessible technologies and need something they can just operate with one touch.”

As Jason worked with Stacy, the fear he originally had about meeting Stacy came to fruition – he does now care for Stacy a lot! And that is, perhaps, the most beautiful part of all of this.

“Stacy is my buddy now, my friend. I’m an only child, so I don’t know what it’s like to have a brother, but in a lot of ways, I feel I’m in the older brother role with Stacy. I want to help him experience new things. I want to expose him to new things. I want him to push his horizons just a little bit more. He’s a big part of my life now.”​

“Jason is an angel!” says Portia. “He’s our hero. What he’s done for Stacy has touched my heart. And Stacy just loves Jason. Stacy has worn his hair as short as possible for decades. But now, he’s growing his hair long so he can wear a ‘man bun’ like his mentor and friend, Jason.  I’m so grateful for all Jason has done.”​

The visionary team of UCSD students will continue working on the development of the TTK device for another quarter. We look forward to Introducing you to the UCSD team and sharing the results of this incredible project with you in a future blog!