AmpliMy project to give a voice to those who have trouble being heard

9/22/2015 Jodi Heckel, U of I News Bureau

An Illinois student cerebral palsy is working with industrial design professor Deana McDonagh and Skot Wiedmann, a technician in ECE ILLINOIS' Electronic Services Shop, to design and build a voice amplifier called AmpliMy.

Written by Jodi Heckel, U of I News Bureau

Alexis Wernsing, a University of Illinois student majoring in art history, has cerebral palsy, and her voice is not powerful. It is not hard for someone to hear her when talking one-on-one in a quiet space, but in a noisier atmosphere such as a cafeteria, it’s impossible.

From left to right: Skot Wiedmann, Alexis Wernsing, Deana McDonagh, and Rachel Graddy.
From left to right: Skot Wiedmann, Alexis Wernsing, Deana McDonagh, and Rachel Graddy.
She has tried using voice amplifiers, but none worked very well for her. Either they generated too much feedback or they weren’t loud or clear enough, and it was hard to keep the microphone in the proper position. And she is unable to manipulate the knobs and switches that work them.

But Wernsing hopes to have a voice amplifier that will attach to her wheelchair and that she can operate herself. She is working with industrial design Professor Deana McDonagh and Skot P Wiedmann, a graduate of the School of Art and Design and technician in ECE ILLINOIS' Electronics Services Shop. They will design and build a voice amplifier called AmpliMy.

The team, which also includes Rachel Graddy, an occupational therapist with the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, received a $10,000 Illinois Proof-of-Concept award from the U. of I. Office of Technology Management to develop and test the device.

Wernsing took McDonagh’s class on disability and design a year and a half ago, and McDonagh realized Wernsing would benefit from a device that could amplify her voice.

“It’s pretty difficult to hear me in the classroom. She picked up on that right away and we started brainstorming,” Wernsing said.

McDonagh teaches in the School of Art and Design, is a faculty member in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and is a designer entrepreneur-in-residence at the U. of I. Research Park. Her expertise is in empathic design, which aims to work with the users of products to design the items in a more intuitive way that meets the needs of the users and enhances their quality of life.

In McDonagh’s disability and design class – which is offered each spring in the School of Art and Design – students with and without disabilities work on design systems or products that help people function better in the world.

“Everybody is touched by some form of difference. Everybody in their own way has difficulty,” McDonagh said. “This is what the course is about – let’s look at opportunities to enable, empower and educate users. It gives them a voice." 

“The joy of what I do is, it’s just good design, and good design should be for everybody,” she said.

Skot P Wiedmann
Skot P Wiedmann
Wiedmann was surprised to find there was nothing commercially available that would be useful for Wernsing. He said commercial amplifiers are like megaphones make the voice much louder but at the expense of clarity. They sound terrible, he said.

Wiedmann, who has always had an interest in sound, modified a commercial amplifier with a better speaker that provided more clarity. Wernsing used it when she worked as a teaching assistant for McDonagh’s disability and design class this past spring. But the amplifier had controls that Wernsing couldn’t manipulate, so McDonagh had to turn it on and off for her.

“A lot of things are really difficult if you can’t use your hands. You can’t put the headset on. You can’t adjust the volume. You can’t even get it out,” Wiedmann said.

“We all knew there had to be something better out there,” Wernsing said.

The goal is to develop an amplifier that would attach to Wernsing’s wheelchair so it is always available and in a position where she can easily operate it. The team tried out different types of switches before deciding Wernsing needs controls she can manipulate by nudging them with her elbow.

“We want her to have dignity. We want her to be able to turn the volume up and turn it down when she wants,” McDonagh said.

Wiedmann said the idea is to provide Wernsing with something useful but minimize the distraction of the technology and allow her to connect to the people with whom she’s talking.

“It was clear she had a lot to say and you really wanted to hear her voice and have her be part of the conversation,” Wiedmann said. “She’s really passionate about teaching and connecting with students.”

Wernsing said the project will help her fulfill her dream of pursuing a teaching career, but “I think it’s much bigger than that. I think working on this project with so many different people with different abilities and expertise, it shows everyone that absolutely anything is possible with a little effort and creativity.”

McDonagh said the project is an example of how industrial designers can work with users and with scientists and engineers and use design to make a product better able to meet the needs of the users.

“We don’t want to just make more technology. We want to see how it applies to real people,” she said.

The device could help others too, McDonagh said, including people who have trouble speaking after they’ve had a stroke.

Share this story

This story was published September 22, 2015.