Thanks to an upgraded wheelchair that scientists have developed, persons with spinal cord injury may be able to use it easily. A novel headset that can precisely control a wheelchair or computer using the tongue is on the anvil for such patients.
The "tongue drive", being trialled at Georgia Tech University, Atlanta, could also give astronauts a third hand in difficult situations like spacewalks.
Invented by electrical engineer Maysam Ghovanloo and Xueliang Huo, the device works by using two sensors to track a 5-millimetre-wide magnet attached to the tip of the user's tongue.
The sensors - implanted in a wireless headset - accept fluctuations in the strength of the magnetic field as the tongue moves, and transmit the signals on to a computer, where they are interpreted and acted upon.
By moving the tongue in predefined patterns, the user can steer a cursor on a screen, direct a wheelchair, and can even on switch on a TV.
Conventional methods include "sip and puff" devices, which are operated by blowing or sucking on a straw held in front of the mouth.
However, according to the Ghovanloo, tongue-drive system can accept a wider variety of commands.
"Some don't like their sip and puff because it sits right in front of their face, and is like a signal of their disability," New Scientist magazine quoted Ghovanloo as saying.
"Our design can be made less conspicuous," Ghovanloo added.
The researchers say that they are in talks with a dental expert about installing them into a plastic retainer that fits inside the user's teeth.