A high school exchange program to Ecuador exposed now biomedical engineering junior, Mary Elizabeth McCulloch to the hardships nonverbal persons face each day. While volunteering at an orphanage with fifteen cerebral palsy children, Mary Elizabeth learned that communication involved only yes or no questions and that a focus on facial expressions was necessary to tell the rest of a child’s story. This experience sparked an undying passion in the student to improve the lives of the nonverbal and has been motivation throughout her academic carrier.
Today, that passion is imagined in the form of VIVE, an assistive speech device that requires limited movement to express a person’s thoughts. The machine allows someone with limited communication abilities to utilize a mobile body part to click through categories of words while listening to the options via head phones. These small movements are used to build phrases that share the individual’s wants, needs, and feelings. VIVE is truly invaluable for its ability to depict the personality of an individual that could otherwise be lost with simple yes or no answers. The device is also applicable for short term use by stroke victims or other nonverbal hospital patients to communicate pain levels.
In the same market as VIVE is eye tracking, a tool that follows a user’s gaze to select what he or she wants to communicate from a computer screen. While eye tracking is effective and innovative, it can appear robotic and has costs that make it unavailable to many people in need such as those that Mary Elizabeth worked with in Ecuador. Comparably, VIVE allows users to keep eye contact with the listener and utilize facial expressions while selecting their thoughts. The device is also compact, measuring roughly 5 by 4 inches with a built in speaker phone to make transportation easy. A final price is still to be determined, but a recent global market analysis found that an amount under $500 has the potential to beat out any other device. Mary Elizabeth is confident that this goal is reachable and has even higher hopes to lower the price to $100 in order for patients of all economic circumstances to have the power of voice.
It is important that the voice be fitting for the user in order for them to feel comfortable speaking from the device. This requires word selections that are age and language appropriate which opens up a window for community engagement to develop dialects and culturally significant phrases. Mary Elizabeth is highly interested in training community members as tech support and creating production facilities in areas of high need as a means for economic development as well. It is clear that VIVE is on a path to make many sustainable changes in the lives of the nonverbal and their communities.
Mary Elizabeth has followed her own advice to “act now”. She is working closely with the Penn State Small Business Development center to create a sustainable business plan, understand the legalities of her invention, and analyze the global market as previously mentioned. She has also learned valuable lessons from peers in the NL3 program and coworkers at New Leaf about developing a business. A major tip has been listening to others about how to approach large companies like the Cerebral Palsy Organization to trial run VIVE. With the resources at Mary Elizabeth’s fingertips and a burning passion to change the lives of those with nonverbal conditions, there is little in the way of VIVE’s success.
Mary Elizabeth is set on attending medical school post-graduation and currently works in the Musculoskeletal Regenerative Engineering Lab identifying the attributes of proteins in varying environments. While at Penn State Altoona in 2013, Mary Elizabeth was also honored with the Eastern College Athletic Conference as its Division III Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her academic and swimming triumphs. For more information about Mary Elizabeth and VIVE, check out Penn State’s 2014 feature article.