EarSwitch, a startup using University of Bath research to develop wearable in-ear devices to help people with disabilities communicate, is showcasing a new product at CES, the world’s biggest technology show.

The company, set up to help people with disabilities including motor neurone disease (MND, also known as ALS) to communicate, is showing its new EarControl technology at the Las Vegas exhibition, alongside The Scott-Morgan Foundation.

EarSwitch is a small, earbud-like device. Inserted into the ear, it uses an in-built sensor to detect movements of a tiny muscle known as the tensor tympani, allowing users to operate an assistive keyboard. An assistive screen scans letters and words which users can select by tensing the ear muscle.

The tensor tympani is the muscle that moves when you yawn – and initial research from the team found that many people are able to use it voluntarily, with the possibility that it can be trained.

EarControl, allows people who cannot use traditional input devices, such as a mouse or keyboard, to interact with a computer by acting as a 3D ‘ear mouse’. Earbuds that track a user’s focus and selects an icon from the screen of a linked device with an ear click. The technology works because the tensor tympani moves your ear drums as your eyes move.

It's believed that with degenerative conditions such as MND, control of the tensor tympani muscle is preserved for longer than other muscles, and so the team hope the technology can support users for longer.

In addition to harnessing the muscle to help people with neurological conditions, the team also believe applications could extend to ear controls for mobile phones, or for gaming.

Earswitch prototype An 'Earswitch' prototype, as developed by Dr Gompertz.

EarSwitch is the brainchild of former Somerset-based GP, Dr Nick Gompertz, who has partnered with experts from Bath across computer science, electronic engineering, and health.

In 2022, EarSwitch was awarded over £1.5 million in funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), to develop its technology into a product with appropriate regulatory approval as a medical device, and to explore the use of the device as a means to control an upper-limb exoskeleton or prosthesis.

Dr Nick Gompertz says: “The collaboration with University of Bath continues to be pivotal in the advancement of EarSwitch to improve communication for people with conditions such as MND (also known as ALS).

“The importance of this opportunity has been recognised by the Scott-Morgan Foundation (SMF) with whom we will be demonstrating EarControl as part of a collaborative of assistive technologies at CES. We are working with SMF to give everyone the Right to Thrive.”

The team at Bath includes Dr Ben Metcalfe (Electronic & Electrical Engineering), Dr Dario Cazzola and Dr Chris Clarke (Computer Science).

Dr Ben Metcalfe, Deputy Director of the Bath Institute for the Augmented Human, says: “We are delighted that EarSwitch continues to go from strength to strength, and their recent showing at CES 2024 demonstrates their remarkable achievements over the past few years.

“The EarSwitch technology has the potential to transform the quality of life of those living with conditions such as motor neurone disease, and it is so pleasing to see that this work continues in the spirit of Peter Scott-Morgan and the Scott-Morgan Foundation. Developing a new medical device is a complex process, and we continue to support EarSwitch with both core technology development and ongoing clinical trials required for full regulatory approval. It is a real pleasure to see such continued success from Nick and the team.”

The collaboration with Nick Gompertz is thanks to the University’s Digital Innovation Business Acceleration Hub, funded by ERDF, and the SETsquared Scale Up programme.