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New exhibition considers the future of mouth-controllers for digital devices

A pop-up exhibition from Science Gallery London asks the question: what would it be like to control your favourite computer game with your mouth?

‘Mouth CTRLer’ presents the work of Francesca Perona, Luca Alessandrini and Michelle Korda, who have created a mouth-controlled gaming device inspired by human enhancement technologies and sensory augmentation trends. 

Based on the classic arcade game Pong, players are invited to compete mouth-vs-hand, with one player using a standard games console handset, while their opponent dons a custom-made headset with pressure-sensitive left and right pads that go in to the mouth. The wearer uses these pads, and the appropriate bite pressure in their mouth, to control their Pong paddle onscreen.

At the preview event last night, artist Francesca Perona said, “We applied with this weird idea to the Science Gallery about how we could make mouth controllers. We found there’s actually a lot of work in development for helping people with disabilities to interact with digital interfaces, being able to navigate around spaces and use computers.

“At the same time, we wanted to understand what more is out there and can be done through the mouth. We ran a couple of workshops, we invited a range of people from teenagers to adults to actually tell us what they use their mouth for and what other experience they would want to have through their mouth and how controllers could be developed for those experiences.”

To produce the mouth-controller, innovation designer Luca Alessandrini created the simple headset, deliberately choosing relatively inexpensive materials.

“It’s a material that was invented in the 1980s. It’s called QTC and basically there are two micro-conductive layers inside, it’s like a rubber, very tiny, like one mill[imetre] thick rubber. If you press it, those two microlayers of conductive material get closer and the material itself becomes conductive. If you put a super-easy switch with two poles, it’s literally a pressure-activated switch. So you can do it with your teeth quite easily,” he explained.

“I was interested in using this material, plus it’s not really widely used in these types of application. I wanted to explore the idea of using this material for this, it’s something new. We wanted to demonstrate that literally with [material worth] 50p it’s possible to actually make a controller like this.”

While the exhibition and the headset are simple in scope at this stage – controlling the simplest video game ever made – the long-term possibilities have a grander ambition, potentially offering a cost-effective solution for anyone in need to create their own mouth-controller devices, for whatever purpose. People with disabilities could conceivably benefit greatly from the solutions proposed by the exhibition. 

“On a larger scale, proposing a DIY perspective to what is already existing on the market might be one of the next steps, if we have the chance to push this forward. We wanted to propose a sort of DIY version for £20, whereas what already exists on the market is about £300 or £400 for a wheelchair or a computer controller for navigation,” Alessandrini said.

“The tongue is so dexterous and we don’t use it for anything. We use our fingers for all of our interconnected devices, but what about using the mouth?” Perona concluded. 

The ‘Mouth CTRLer’ installation will be on show at the Oral Emporium, Collingwood Street, London, SE1 1XY from 22-25 November 2016, as part of Science Gallery London’s autumn season ‘Mouthy: into the orifice’.

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