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Kuniaki Ozawa, General Manager, Ubiquitous Systems Division, Ubiquitous Platform Systems, Hitachi, Ltd. talks about his experiences.
There are around 7,000 patients in Japan with ALS *1. I first learned about ALS when a fellow employee contracted the disease. I would visit and speak to him, but he was unable to respond because he could not move the muscles required to write or speak. As I was involved in developing information devices for ease of use by the elderly and physically challenged, I immediately began work on developing a communication device for ALS patients. In 1997, we developed Denno-shin *2 , a device using sensors to detect subtle movements, like those of an eyebrow, enabling ALS patients to construct sentences on a computer. It was commercialized by Hitachi Keiyo Engineering & Systems, Ltd., and 3,300 total units have shipped as of March 2006. The comments of patients and families have been truly uplifting. A patient told us that being able to have conversations has renewed his will to live.
Cerebral blood flow data from Kokoro Gatari. Blood flow differs between "yes" (left) and "no" (right) responses. Precision was improved by developing a light source that accurately measures blood flow volume and a sensor that attaches firmly to the head, as well as by analyzing frequency in addition to volume of blood flow.
Development of Kokoro Gatari was inspired by a phone conversation with a family member of a completely immobilized patient. The family just wanted the patient to be able to say whether the care provided was adequate. How could patients who have lost complete control of their motor functions communicate? What I thought of was research on cerebral blood flow using an optical topography *3 system developed by Hitachi. I visited the research team and had them build a prototype that could detect changes in blood flow between resting and active states, like when doing math in one's head. I asked the patient to do math to indicate a "yes" response, but it was a struggle at first because the rate at which the device was correct did not really improve.
To raise the rate, we elicited the cooperation of professors at Kagoshima University, former Hitachi researchers, our prototyper Excel of Mechatronix, and the Japan Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association. Students at the university discovered that cerebral blood flow increased when singing, providing a major clue. As a result of building several prototypes, we improved the rate to 80% and in December 2005 Excel commercialized the device under the name "Kokoro Gatari." The reception was outstanding, with inquiries from Japan, U.S., Norway, and Peru. We have since delivered 10 units in Japan and 3 units for trials in the U.S.
In an effort to create environments that provide information access for everyone, Hitachi has also commercialized sign language animation software called "Mimehand" and software for senior citizens and novice computer users called "Shinyu." I think support should be extended within the Hitachi Group to further promote these products. Regarding Kokoro Gatari, we plan to further improve its accuracy and shorten measurement time. We hope it will find use in the U.S., where there are 500,000 potential users (including ALS patients and others), and throughout the world.
(Published in July 2006)