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ASU students win signal processing application contest

students standing next to project display
May 27, 2014

With a mission of improving therapy for people with communication disorders in underserved communities, three Arizona State University students from different disciplines worked together to develop Speaklear, a telemedicine device designed to allow speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to treat patients with communication disorders remotely, allowing for widespread, worldwide impact of highly skilled assessment.

Their innovation was selected as the winner of the signal processing application contest, hosted by the Acoustical Society of America, and subsequently as a finalist for the sixth annual Wireless Innovation Project Competition, sponsored by the Vodafone Americas Foundation (WIP). WIP offers applicants the opportunity to win a total prize fund of $600,000 for innovative mobile solutions that have potential to solve critical global issues.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach to solve a world-wide problem

According to the World Health Organization, dysarthria, a motor speech disorder, affects approximately 46 million people worldwide, three million of whom live in the United States. Dysarthria is a condition that occurs when the muscles of the mouth, face and respiratory system fail to move or become weak after a stroke or brain injury. Symptoms may include slurred speech, hoarseness and a weak voice.

Renee Utianski, a doctoral student in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Health Solutions, has worked with speech-language patients for years, and says she thought of the idea for the tool after seeing a gap in care in rural areas with limited access.

“It can be difficult for people to access treatment from trained speech-language pathologists, especially in communities outside of metropolitan areas, leaving their disorder untreated,” Utianski said. “It can be a real quality of life issue.”

With the help of her mentor, Julie Liss, Utianski recruited and partnered with Steven Sandoval, an engineering student in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, and Nicole Lehrer in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering in developing the device.

“Our team was awesome,” Utianski said. “Steven has a solid engineering background and was able to translate what I had in my head of what an SLP would find helpful and apply it to the application. His technical skills and ingenuity blew me away.”

Lehrer, a Media Arts and Sciences doctoral student, is part of a team developing a home-based stroke rehabilitation system.

“Nicole’s talents are multi-faceted,” Utianski said. “In addition to her degrees in biomedical engineering and painting, she is part of a team of students developing a home-based stroke rehabilitation system. Her background complemented our efforts beautifully.”

A health solution for underserved communities

Speaklear works like any other application on smartphones or tablets. After it records speech samples, it provides a variety of calculations, both novel and traditional, to assess speech production. This process helps the SLP pinpoint the areas which are most problematic.

A traditional in-office therapy session draws upon the SLP’s training just as much as it does their perceptual experience to hone in on problem areas, allowing them to cater therapy to meet the needs of the patient. In order to replicate those instincts, the Speaklear team worked with 25 SLPs and audiologists around Phoenix with at least 20 years of experience in the field to develop the traditional portion of the calculation. Utianski says the group was pleased to discover that not only were the experts willing to participate in the development of Speaklear, but most were anxious to start using it.

“The SLPs who helped us develop the tool were excited about the possibility of using Speaklear in their practice,” she said. “They see this as a partial solution to the longstanding shortage of SLPs, particularly in rural areas.”

The students’ Speaklear device won first place at the Acoustical Society of America conference earlier this year. The winners of the Wireless Innovation Project Competition will be announced at the end of this month.

“The best part, for me, was working with a diverse, passionate team who brought so much talent to the table,” Utianski said. “It’s amazing what a small group of dedicated people can do in making a big impact on the lives of others.”

The Speaklear team consists of:

Rene Utianski, Department of Speech and Hearing Science

Steven Sandoval, School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering (ECEE)

Nicole Lehrer, School of Arts, Media and Engineering

Visar Berisha, faculty mentor, ECEE, Sensor, Signal and Information Processing Center

Julie Liss, faculty mentor, Department of Speech and Hearing Science