July 20, 2024
Chicago 12, Melborne City, USA

Tomás Vega: Innovating Human Augmentation with MouthPad

Tomas Vega

When Tomás Vega SM ’19 was just five years old, he began experiencing stuttering. This early challenge helped him understand the difficulties that come with having a disability and showed him the transformative potential of technology.

“A keyboard and a mouse were my outlets,” Vega recalls. “They enabled me to communicate fluently through my actions. This experience allowed me to surpass my limitations and sparked my fascination with human augmentation and cyborgs. It also cultivated my empathy. While everyone possesses empathy, we often apply it based on our own experiences.”

Since then, Vega has dedicated his life to using technology to enhance human abilities. He started programming at age 12 and, during high school, assisted people with disabilities such as hand impairments and multiple sclerosis. At university—first at the University of California, Berkeley, and later at MIT—he developed technologies to help people with disabilities gain independence.

Currently, Vega is the co-founder and CEO of Augmental, a startup creating technology that enables individuals with movement impairments to interact seamlessly with their personal digital devices.

Augmental’s initial product, the MouthPad, allows users to control their computer, smartphone, or tablet using tongue and head movements. The device features a pressure-sensitive touch pad that fits on the roof of the mouth and works with motion sensors to translate gestures into cursor movements and clicks in real-time via Bluetooth.

“The brain dedicates a significant portion to controlling the tongue’s position,” Vega explains. “The tongue has eight muscles, mostly slow-twitch fibers, which don’t tire quickly. So, I thought, why not utilize that?”

People with spinal cord injuries are already using the MouthPad to independently interact with their favorite devices. One user, who has quadriplegia and is studying math and computer science, finds the device invaluable for writing formulas and studying in the library—tasks where other assistive speech devices are less effective.

“She can now take notes in class, play games with friends, watch movies, and read books,” Vega says. “Her mom told us that getting the MouthPad was the most significant moment since her injury.”

Augmental aims to make technology more accessible to everyone, especially those with severe impairments, so they can use phones and tablets as proficiently as anyone else.

In 2012, Vega, a first-year student at UC Berkeley, met his future Augmental co-founder, Corten Singer. Vega aspired to join MIT’s Media Lab, a goal he achieved four years later, enrolling in the Fluid Interfaces research group led by Pattie Maes.

“I only applied to one grad school program, the Media Lab,” Vega says. “I believed it was the only place where I could pursue my passion for augmenting human abilities.”

At the Media Lab, Vega took courses in microfabrication, signal processing, and electronics. He created wearable devices to help people access online information, improve sleep, and regulate emotions.

“The Media Lab was a playground for makers,” Vega says. “I could experiment freely and apply my engineering and neuroscience background.”

Although initially interested in brain-machine interfaces, an internship at Neuralink made Vega reconsider. “Brain implants have great potential but face long development timelines. I needed a solution for my friends now.”

Vega decided to develop a solution with similar potential to brain implants but fewer limitations. In his last semester at MIT, he created a sensor-laden “lollipop” to test mouth-based computer interaction, which worked remarkably well.

“I called Corten and said, ‘This could change lives,'” Vega recalls. “It could revolutionize human-computer interaction.”

Using MIT resources like the Venture Mentoring Service and the MIT I-Corps program, and with early funding from MIT’s E14 Fund, Augmental was founded when Vega graduated in 2019.

Each MouthPad is custom-designed using a 3D model of the user’s mouth, 3D printed with dental-grade materials, and equipped with electronic components. Users can navigate their devices by sliding their tongue, clicking with sipping gestures, or using head movements.

“Augmental aims to create a multimodal interface accommodating various conditions,” Tomas says.

Many current users have spinal cord injuries and use the MouthPad daily for up to nine hours. “It has seamlessly integrated into their lives, providing immense value,” Vega notes.

Augmental seeks FDA clearance to enable functions like controlling wheelchairs and robotic arms, making the product more accessible through insurance reimbursements. The company is also developing a system responding to whispers and subtle movements, crucial for users with impaired lung function.

Vega is optimistic about AI and hardware advancements. “We hope to offer a robust, private interface to intelligence, the most expressive hands-free operating system humans have created,” Vega envisions.

Source: https://www.media.mit.edu/articles/mouth-based-touchpad-enables-people-living-with-paralysis-to-interact-with-computers/

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