David Levine (center) holds the Palette prototype. David Levine (center) holds the Palette prototype. David Levine (center) holds the Palette prototype. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Students' invention allows quadriplegics to use tongue to control devices

New tool is 'telekinesis for the tongue' and allows users to be more independent.

You've probably never heard of the phrase "tongue-controlled independence," but thanks to five enterprising college students, that's about to change.

They've just invented life-changing technology: a retainer for quadriplegics that allows them to move by using their tongue. Quadriplegics, who are usually paralyzed from the neck down, can use the device to do everything from moving their wheelchair, dialing a phone, playing a video game, turning on a light and much more.

The students created the device, known as the Pallette, as part of a senior project at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, a joint collaboration of America's Cornell University and the Technion Institute in Israel. The team – composed of Daniel Levine, Rohit Jain, Shawn Bramson, Joanna Zhang and Oliver Hoffman – were part of the first graduating class of the newly established college.

Take a look at their prototype in the video below:

The way the Pallette works is simple: Think of it as a wireless computer mouse in your mouth. It contains a tiny joystick to control movement and two buttons to indicate actions. It sends a Bluetooth signal to a mobile app, which redirects the signal to different devices connected to it. One particularly neat feature is that quadriplegics can use the device to control an actual computer mouse, thereby giving them the ability to surf the internet.

They brought the device to a local hospital in New York and had some patients try it out. “There was one guy who really wanted to do art and he saw this as a way he could do art," Levine said. “There was one guy who really loves Instagram and he sort of thought that would be a cool use. One guy was positive and happy and he saw it as a way to move around and use his television."

He adds: “I'd also love to see this used in art or experimental things. Like, controlling balloons or flying around drones or painting. It's like telekinesis with your tongue."

Cornell Tech student Joanna Zhang working on the device.Cornell Tech student Joanna Zhang working on the device. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

The team showcased the prototype in April at TechDay New York, an annual startup showcase that attracts 30,000 people. And even though they graduated in May, the students have stuck around to further work on the project this summer. They've been fine-tuning the device to make it more user-friendly, including making it smaller so the people wearing the retainer can more easily smile.

They're now working on making the Pallette open source, which means it will be available to other developers so they can add new features for it. Think of it like an iPhone and developers continually create new apps to make it more useful. For example, your cable company could make it so you can use the retainer to control your TV's remote.

"I had this idea that if you wanted to create something from your imagination, you could build it from the bottom up," Levine said.

Among other groups, the students received guidance from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds research into finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

(From left): The team was comprised of Shawn Bramson, Rohit Jain, Daniel Levine, Joanna Zhang, and Oliver Hoffman. (From left): The team consists of Shawn Bramson, Rohit Jain, Daniel Levine, Joanna Zhang and Oliver Hoffman. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

The retainer follows other innovations out of Israel that are helping to better the daily lives of the disabled. Thanks to a partnership between Google and Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israel-based global advocacy group for people with disabilities, there's a completely hands-free phone that quadriplegics can operate simply by voice commands. An Israeli mom invented a device that allows special needs children to walk for the first time. A group of students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology harnessed the power of GPS and video game software to help give sight to the blind.

Not to mention the Israeli-made ReWalk exoskeleton, which is enabling paralyzed people to walk – allowing them to return to work and even run 10K races.

Back in New York, at the Cornell-Technion collaboration, the diverse group of a dozen students from all over the world spent the past couple years doing graduate work on everything from urban design to robotics to healthcare technology. In addition to their studies in the Big Apple, the students also traveled to Israel to visit their counterparts in the Mediterranean.

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