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Helping Stephen Hawking Communicate

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Note from the editor: This poignant piece about how Intel technology truly is changing the world was shared through our internal communication site. Thanks to our guest blogger, Rob Kelton from Intel’s Internal Employee Communications team, we get up close and personal with the Intel engineer who customizes PCs for Stephen Hawking.

For a man who was diagnosed with a devastating motor neuron disease at age 21 and given just 3 years to live, the brilliant British scientist Stephen Hawking, who celebrated his 70th birthday Sunday, continues to amaze. Despite his severe physical disabilities, the University of Cambridge professor has advanced the theories of physics and cosmology, including the theoretical prediction that black holes should emit radiation. His 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time, sold 9 million copies and made him one of the world’s most famous and popular scientists (complete with a guest role on The Simpsons TV show).

What you may not have known about Stephen Hawking is how Intel has helped the paralyzed, voiceless scientist communicate to the world since 1997.

Travis, an Intel application engineer, has traveled from Oregon to England every couple of years for the last decade to hand-deliver a customized PC he has created for Hawking.

Here Travis talks about his unique project, the technology that powers the customized system, and how Intel co-founder Gordon Moore got Hawking to switch from AMD to Intel.

Q. How did you come to be the guy who helps Stephen Hawking?
In 2001, I started a new lab called the Mobile Power Lab. One of the engineers who got hired on to work in that lab was already working on this project. Through a series of events, he ended up transitioning that project over to me, and I've been running with it ever since.

It’s not my full-time job. I'm an application engineer with the Platform Launch and Revenue Team under PCCG [PC Client Group]. I support mobile and desktop chipsets on the revenue side.

Intel with Stephen Hawking (L-R), Travis, Rob. Intel Swindon employee who is IT support for Hawking, Sam Blackburn, graduate assistant for Hawking, and Stephen Hawking.

Q. What technology does Stephen use?
The computer is made up of three parts: a Lenovo X220 tablet PC, a custom black box containing various peripherals, and the hardware voice itself. The computer features an Intel Core i7 processor along with a forward-facing webcam which Stephen uses to place phone calls using Skype.

Underneath the wheelchair is the black box which contains an audio amplifier, voltage regulators and a USB hardware key which receives the input from the IR sensor on Stephen’s eyeglasses. The hardware voice synthesizer sits in another black box on the back of the chair and receives commands from the computer via a USB-based serial port.

Q. How does Stephen control what comes out of his voice synthesizer?
When I first met Stephen, he still had some use in his thumbs. In fact, he'd still attempt to drive his own wheelchair. He pinned me against the wall once [laughs]. He had basically a clicker, a binary switch that he held in his hand. He’d press it with his thumb to highlight the words or commands on the computer screen. He was typing at about one word per minute when I first met him. He was actually pretty snappy with it.

Over time that nerve that allowed him to move his thumbs degraded, and he had to find another way to communicate. They originally talked about using one of his pectoral muscles and putting a sensor there. He wasn’t too thrilled with that idea.

What he's got now is an infrared sensor hanging off of his glasses. It basically detects the changes in light as he twitches his cheek. They call it the “cheek switch.” [Watch a quick video of Stephen using the software that interprets twitches from his cheek to produce a synthesized voice. Run time 27 seconds].

Q. You said a group in Swindon and Intel Labs is working on speeding up his word output?
Stephen sent a letter to Gordon Moore several months ago in which he said, "My speech input is very, very slow these days. Is there any way Intel could help?"

Since that time, we've gotten a couple of groups at Intel involved with looking at what can be done to help Stephen. This is still very early on. XTL, the Experience Technology Lab, is looking at facial recognition software to try to come up with some sort of a new input method for Stephen that would be quicker than what he's currently using. 

Q. Talk about Gordon Moore and Stephen Hawking and how this project came to be.
Stephen and Gordon met at a conference around 1997. Gordon noted that Stephen was using an AMD machine. Gordon asked Stephen, "Would you like to use an Intel computer moving forward? We'd be happy to build that for you and support it."

Stephen said yes, and we've been building these custom PCs for him ever since. We've done an average of one every two years or so.

Q. So when you take this to Stephen, do you fly commercial holding the customized PC on your lap?
I actually take two systems out to Stephen [one is a back up]. One year I packed them in cases, checked them in as luggage and the airlines lost them for three days. The year after that I thought I’d ship them ahead of time. They got held up in Customs for three days. This time I got lucky. My luggage showed up with me [laughs].

Q. Was this year’s deployment a success?
The interesting thing around this time is all the hardware work was finished within a few hours on the first day. It's configuring all the software that really took a long time. I think that's due to some customizations that Stephen's assistant has made in recent years.

This is also the fastest computer we've ever deployed to Stephen. We found out that when you turn on the computer, it's supposed to basically come up with all his applications and programs and his Words+ speech synthesizer software right from the get-go. But what we were finding out is that it would start all those applications so fast that it didn't have time to initialize the hardware devices yet.

So his voice application would be started, but the security key for the voice application wouldn't be initialized yet. We actually had to put some startup delays in and make it wait five seconds so that the hardware devices could finish being initialized by the time the CPU started running all those applications. We've gotten that fast. [Watch a quick video of graduate assistant Sam Blackburn unveil Stephen Hawking's custom PC for the first time.]

Q. Who provides tech support if his computer has problems?
Robert in the Swindon office. He’s the feet on the ground, a couple hours’ drive away.

Q. What does your family think about you working with Stephen Hawking?
My wife’s stepmother is a teacher. She gets pretty starry-eyed and shares what I’m doing with her grade school students [laughs]. Personally, it’s interesting to build something that no one else is building. I debug things for a living and it’s a job I enjoy.

Interested in hearing more about this unique project? Check out this article.