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Revolutionary EarSwitch communication device attracts £1.5 million funding

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A team of researchers at the University of Bath have been awarded more than £1.5 million in funding to develop the revolutionary ‘EarSwitch’ communication device.

The device has been designed to enable people with conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) to communicate using the tiny tensor tympani muscle hidden in the ear.

The funding will enable the researchers and a local GP to refine the device and roll the product out to users.

The earbud-like device uses an in-built camera to pick up muscle movements, allowing users to operate an assistive keyboard.

Users can select letters and words on an assistive screen by tensing the ear muscle.

While most people are unaware of the tensor tympani muscle, initial research showed that many can use it voluntarily, with the possibility that it can be trained.

EarSwitch allows people who cannot use devices such as a mouse and keyboard to interact with a computer.

Control of the muscle is thought to be preserved longer in people with degenerative conditions like MND.

The technology may also one day be harnessed for mobile phone use and gaming, the researchers said.

EarSwitch is the brainchild of former Somerset-based GP, Nick Gompertz, who said:

“I have always believed passionately in the huge potential of the EarSwitch for people living with degenerative conditions such as MND and the transformative effects it could have in enabling them to communicate for longer.

“Working with the University of Bath has allowed us to demonstrate widely that the EarSwitch presents a massive opportunity to help people communicate.

“Without their support and publicity which has reached around the world, we would not have gained the traction to secure these two significant funding streams from NIHR.”

The first funding award is a £1.45 Million NIHR Product Development Award (PDA). This will help the team develop EarSwitch into a product with appropriate regulatory approval as a medical device.

Additional partners for this project include a manufacturing consortium and the Portsmouth Technology Trials Unit.

The second award is for £70,000 from NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i Connect).

This project will explore the use of EarSwitch as a means to control an upper-limb exoskeleton or prosthesis. It will involve working with OpenBionics, a local manufacturer of 3D printed prostheses.

Dr Dario Cazzola from the University of Bath’s Department for Health explained:

“This is a great achievement for EarSwitch and demonstrates the importance of the work carried out during the previous NIHR i4i Connect grant.

“I am truly delighted that we can now bring this idea forward and test the comfort, usability, and functionality of a new device, purposely designed to enable people with neuro-disability to communicate.”

Dr Ben Metcalfe from the University’s Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering added:

“I am delighted that EarSwitch has received significant follow-on funding from NIHR. This funding will enable us to develop the technology into a commercial product and drive clinical impact.

“It will also allow us to explore the wider use cases for the technology across the assistive technology sector, supporting those most in need by enabling communication, improving device control, and enhancing quality of life.”

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