SPEECHIE is a simple concept that could revolutionise the way speech-language pathologists work with children, but like all other things ‘simple’, it takes a lot of hard work. Here, Dr Ing. Philip Farrugia explains how the research team at the University of Malta and the industrial partner, Flying Squirrel Games (FSG) Malta Ltd, are jointly developing SPEECHIE; while Anthony Demanuele from FSG explains their role in this project and the opportunity that this research funded project offers their company.
The underlying concept of SPEECHIE is simple enough to understand: a multi-modal device which children could use during speech-language therapy sessions and which would help them make the most out of the tasks given to them by their speech-language pathologists. Since the idea is novel and has such big market potential, the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) provided funds through the FUSION Technology Development Programme 2016, with the ultimate goal of developing SPEECHIE as a market-ready product.
“Our aim for SPEECHIE is to improve the communication and language skills of children faster and more efficiently,” explains Philip, who is the principal investigator and lead inventor of the device. “Normally a speech-language therapy session lasts around 45 minutes and, as one expects, children get bored and lose concentration after the first 20 minutes or so.
“This device will be shaped like a toy children are used to, but will do much, much more than your average toy, of course. It will be more engaging; a smart device. And it will allow for sessions to happen outside of the clinic and outside of office hours, thus allowing children to retain their normal routine,” he continues. “In addition, it will assist speech-language pathologists in their assessment and intervention practices”.
While there is a working-model of the device, the final product will probably be redesigned, as one of the research tasks is to establish what kind of device would be enticing enough for children. The research team will also need to ensure that the device is as cheap as possible to manufacture, strong enough to be handled by children, and smart enough to incorporate all the technology needed to make it function as it should.
Working on this project are also a number of University professors and scholars, including Professor Ing. Simon Fabri, an Associate Professor at the Department of Systems and Control Engineering; Dr Ing. Owen Casha, at the Department of Microelectronics and Nanoelectronics; Professor Helen Grech, the Head of Department of Communication Therapy; and Dr Daniela Gatt, a senior lecturer in Communication Therapy within the Faculty of Health Sciences. In many ways, in fact, this project is a collaboration between multiple University departments that will bring a wealth of research that could be used in future projects. Moreover, the project also has an industrial partner.
Flying Squirrel Games (FSG) Malta Ltd is a company founded two years ago and which works on a variety of games for children aged four to 10. At its helm is Anthony Demanuele, who will coordinate the tasks required by the industrial partner to develop SPEECHIE.
“As partners, we have been following the whole process since the start,” he explains. “We’re involved in what the software side of the product should look like and, while it’s not technically a toy, it should feel like one.
“Among the requirements, we believe it will have to have Internet connectivity and also a touch screen – but it also needs to be durable and able to withstand drops and bashing. We’re currently in the design phase in terms of understanding the requirements; once that’s done, we’ll need to start working on the actual software, which will probably be in the form of a game.”
The final device is expected to hit the market some two to three years from now, and will employ a number of students at postgraduate level. Applications are now open to recruit a Masters by Research student to work on the speech recognition aspect for 18 months. The applications for this are open till Friday 15th July.
“As a company, we believe that this is a way we can use our expertise to give back to society,” Anthony continues. “This is an incredible opportunity that will allow us to create a device that can save time and money, while also making the lives of children who require speech-language therapy and their parents’ easier.”