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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!

  3. Autumn permalink


    Would it be possible for us to connect on this? If so, where can I contact you directly?

    Thank you in advance and thank you for your interest in and work on this! This could be life changing for so many.

    • Hi. You may reach out to me on Instagram @crankerson 🙂

      • Autumn permalink

        Hi and thank you for your very fast response! I don’t have an Instagram and I just tried to make one to contact you and have somehow managed to lock myself out of it haha. As you might be able to tell I am not the most tech savvy person! Would it be possible for me to reach you via email? I am trying to get my loved one and others in our community access to consistent and reliable communication and would be so appreciative if I could communicate with you in a non public way :-). If not, I will try the Instagram thing again once I’m not locked out anymore. Thanks again!!!

      • Autumn permalink

        Me again. I figured out how to create a profile on Instagram and requested to follow you. @metta373

        Please accept me! Now I’ll just have to figure out how to send you a message when you do :-).

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