Skip to content

Ever Wonder How Stephen Hawking Communicates?

May 15, 2012

How about Hector “Tio” Salamanca (Breaking Bad guy on wheelchair with bell)?

How about other folks suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or paralysis?

What do you do if you are completely paralyzed and unable to speak… and you were only able to move your cheek muscle? or your finger? or your toe? or your eye?
how do you communicate if you can only give off binary signals?

Well, they use something called an “alphabet board”. If you watch Breaking Bad, Hector Salamanca communicates through a nurse that holds up an “alphabet board”.

The alphabet board used in the show was just a 6 x 6 grid of letters and numbers. The nurse speaks and points to the first letter of each row. If that row contains the letter that Hector wants to speak, he rings the bell. The nurse then speaks and points to each letter in that row. Hector rings the bell when she selects the letter he wants.

I can only imagine the frustration.

Of course there are electronic alphabet boards for ALS patients to communicate without an assistant.
Stephen Hawking has a fancy computer with a software version of the alphabet board and a synthesized voice embedded into his wheelchair. Less privileged patients must go through an assistant.

I checked out the prices on these electronic communication boards and they are quite expensive. Basic models range from $4,000 – $10,000 and the advanced “eye gaze” models range from $10,000 – $25,000.
Why so expensive? I don’t know. But I decided to make my own prototype of a very basic software alphabet board (which is completely free to use) in Javascript that utilizes Google’s undocumented text-to-speech engine. Why javascript? So it can run client-side on just about any device that has a web browser (laptop, tablet, iphone, ipad, etc). An internet connection is only needed for text-to-speech translation.

Click here to give it a test run

Click or press any key when the correct row is selected… then click or press any key again when the correct letter is selected. If you are on an iphone or ipad, just touch anywhere on the screen to select the current row or column. When you are finished, select “DONE” and it will speak it for you.

The source code is available on

It’s a very basic prototype, but I hope it is useful to somebody out there. By supplementing it with a microcontroller equipped with a flex sensor, pushbutton, or optics, the ways to interface with this system are limitless and inexpensive. In its current state, it is primitive… but if ever there is a need (if it provides any kind of service or relief for the disabled) I will continue development.


From → Hacks

  1. drewyoon permalink

    Love how you think Cranky. Great post.

  2. PDH permalink

    This is wonderful. May I suggest a “back” button for correcting errors without having to start over from the beginning? Maybe some commonly used complete words or messages, such as “pain,” “hungry,” “read to me,” etc. These could be customized for any given user. Option of adjusting the speed of the board to accommodate the user’s slow or fast reflexes and reduce clicking errors. Wonderful product!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: