New headset would allow ‘silent speech’ between humans and tech

“Hello? HELLO? Can you hear me now?”

When you work in an open office plan, you are surrounded by distractingly loud conversations that make it hard to stay focused. Now, there’s new technology that wants to make conversations with your devices and other humans completely silent and seamless.

People will be able to talk to humans and devices without opening their mouth

If you are willing to strap a headset to your face, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a way for you to soundlessly communicate without disturbing others, or without your noisy neighbors listening in on your private conversation.

Called AlterEgo, the headset tracks the neuromuscular signals your jaw sends out when you are saying words in your head. In return, the headset sends back vibrations through your face bones so that your inner ear can hear a sound.

“Our idea was: Could we have a computing platform that’s more internal, that melds human and machine in some ways and that feels like an internal extension of our own cognition?” Arnav Kapur, MIT Media Lab student who led the project, said.

With AlterEgo, you can solve math problems, figure out the time, answer a call, and interact with your technology devices. Unlike current interactions with voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, AlterEgo interactions allow you to discreetly talk to your device without a vocal prompt.

Alterego seeks to make computing a natural extension of the user’s own cognition by enabling a silent, discreet and seamless conversation with machines and people, in likeness to the user talking to her own self. Illustration: ACM

And unlike proposed science fiction implants, this kind of communication does not permanently alter your body. More interestingly for employees in desperate need of quiet, the device creates a backchannel for you to silently and privately communicate without alerting others.

The device is one small step for open office workers, one giant leap for human-machine mind melding.

“Silent speech interfaces are more private and personal for each user, and do not conflict with the existing verbal communication channels between people,” the research on AlterEgo concludes. “We envision that the usage of our device will interweave human and machine intelligence to enable a more natural human-machine symbiosis.”