Andreas Forsland didn’t set out to create a new way to communicate. A designer by training, he previously worked as a product and brand strategist for companies such as Philips and Citrix. But four years ago, his mother was hospitalized with pneumonia and connected to a ventilator for weeks. Unable to speak, she had no way to communicate with her son. Forsland wished there were a way she could exchange affirmations of love and support. The experience inspired him to design a device to make nonverbal communication seamless.
The result was the Smartstones Touch, an electronic device in a stone-shaped casing that perceives certain touch gestures programmed with the company’s proprietary app, :prose. With certain movements, the "stone" lights up with with LEDs, vibrates or even projects sound from an internal speaker. Swiping, moving or simply grasping the stone sends a signal to others with the technology.
Smartstones’ :prose app integrates with other wearables, such as the Apple Watch, converting simple taps to speech. It even translates electrical currents from the brain into recurring words and phrases with the Emotiv, an EEG headset, a capability that Smartstones launched in beta in April. Users -- those who suffer from ALS, paralysis, cerebral palsy, spinal cord and brain injuries -- can finally “think to speak.”
“We want to democratize voice,” says Forsland, CEO of his Santa Monica, Calif.-based company. The :prose app, available for iOS users, costs $59, while a Smartstones Touch plus :prose costs $129.
:prose has been available for iOS users for the past year, and Smartstones Touch devices will ship this summer. The company has discovered its app users have developed a language of their own. For instance, swiping upward on the phone screen commonly indicates “yes” among users, while swiping down signifies “no.” “Left” and “right” have become standards for “good” and “bad,” respectively.
“You can establish whatever vocabulary you want to use for every swipe, so it’s completely personalized,” Forsland says. “So I have my list of phrases, and my friend has the same number of gestures, but he can configure them to say whatever he wants. So he’s got his vocabulary, I’ve got my vocabulary ... You add a third person, you triple your vocabulary.”
Whether users communicate via an EEG headset, a Smartstones Touch or the :prose app alone, Forsland explains that his company’s technology is a way of “unlocking their minds so they can speak.”