A vocal amplification patch could help stroke patients and first responders

The device is only 25 micrometers thick and painless.
The new device is barely 25 micrometers thick, and can amplify to normal conversational volume. DepositPhotos

The countless ways people can accidentally hurt their voices are truly impressive—not to mention disconcerting. Everything from a particularly exuberant sing-along, to giving a long public presentation, to simply a bad bout of acid reflux can cause long-lasting, sometimes even permanent damage.

Previously there haven’t been many practical technological solutions to these issues, but a new device developed in  China could soon alleviate the literal and figurative pains of shouting to be heard. Researchers led by Qinsheng Yang at Beijing’s Tsinghua University recently created an incredibly thin patch capable of interpreting and projecting both barely voiced and even silently mouthed words when attached to the outside of a user’s throat.

[Related: A smartly trained voice monitor could save singers, teachers, and loud talkers from strain.]

Although multichannel acoustic sensors already exist, their bulky designs make them largely inconvenient to use by everyday people on a regular basis. However, a new “graphene-based intelligent, wearable artificial throat” (AT), detailed in a paper published this week in Nature Machine Intelligence, measures barely one square centimeter as well as 25 micrometers thick. It  painlessly adheres to the skin above a person’s larynx using a standard medical adhesive. Tiny wires connect the patch to a pocket-sized microcontroller reliant on a coin-sized battery that provides multiple hours of power.

When enabled, the device monitors for tiny throat vibrations which are interpreted by an AI model. Following AI analysis, artificial sound is subsequently projected via the patch itself, which is capable of emitting up to 60 decibels—the volume for most standard conversations—via electrical input courtesy of the device battery that allows for the sound waves via temperature fluctuations.  Research testing showed that the device was over 99 percent accurate when used by people speaking audibly, and over 90 percent accurate for those who couldn’t.

[Related: Why your voice sounds weird on recordings.]

The potential benefits extend to both vocal individuals, as well as those unable to audibly speak, such as those who have received a laryngectomy to remove their voice box or suffer from aphasia after a stroke. As New Scientist explains, the new instrument could soon offer an invaluable tool for those working in loud environments, such as emergency responders and pilots, as well as those who simply might want a bit of a volume boost depending on their circumstances.

It’s an exciting time for vocal therapy devices—earlier this week, another team of researchers at Northwestern University also released their findings on a new wireless voice monitor that can detect and notify users of vocal strain and fatigue.