Communication: it’s fundamental. Whether communicating verbally, through sign language, or with technology, it’s imperative to the human experience. If you think about it, where are we without a voice of our own? You use your voice to speak up for your beliefs, to articulate your opinion, and to communicate with the world–it’s a human right.
Individuals who experience speech disabilities have been fighting to find a voice of their own for too long. They have grown up in a society where accessibility is limited, and there hasn’t been focus in finding better solutions to their challenges. More specifically, the assistive technology industry has relied on repurposed consumer electronics, which are often years behind what is actually possible. This problem has continued to be a disservice to those who could benefit from this technology the most. The population in need has been given devices that are often outdated, immobile, and at times lacking in accessibility.
Cognixion–a neural interface startup based out of Santa Barbara– believes that every individual deserves a solution as unique as they are, no matter their background. When reminded of those affected by communication disabilities worldwide, Cognixion deems it should be possible to construct a single tool for communication, access, and everything else one might need assistance with. This was when our collaboration went into play. Together, STEL and Cognixion created a concept that extends abilities to the most vulnerable, giving those who need it a solution to better navigate the world.
Cognixion is known as a mission-driven company. From the beginning, their vocation has been to “unlock speech for the hundreds of millions of people who are affected by communication disabilities.” This purpose has been deeply embedded in every aspect of their work. Their aim is to provide both affordable and accessible equipment to those experiencing speech disabilities, so the world for these individuals will look and feel very different in the next decade.
Cognixion asks us to imagine “a world where there are thousands of creators, scientists, artists, engineers, change-makers, and philosophers just like Stephen Hawking, contributing to society now that they have a voice.” At the end of the day, they wish to create accessibility for all, no matter the circumstance.
THE RELATIONSHIP THAT CREATED THE CXN ONE
With Cognixion and STEL having complementary drives to create impactful products, working together on CXN ONE was an easy decision. Our collaboration began three years ago, when Co-Founders Pete Ducato and Ryan Olson connected with Cognixion’s founder, Andreas Forsland. With both Cognixion and STEL based out of Santa Barbara, Andreas was able to see firsthand what our in-house Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering teams were capable of creating, as well as our team’s collective passion for creating impact through design and pursuing the things that inspire us everyday.
Since Cognixion traditionally specializes in software development, they needed a partner that could develop a physical platform that could leverage their groundbreaking programs. Through product design and prototyping, STEL was able to give shape to such a platform, allowing users to have a physically tangible embodiment of these life-changing communication tools.
MEET CXN ONE
STEL and Cognixion worked together to create a product that blurs the line between assistive technology and the world of communication. CXN ONE is the world’s first wearable speech generating device that combines a Brain Computer Interface with Augmented Reality to enable communication like never before. Designed to be entirely wireless, mobile, and robust, it goes wherever the user goes.
CXN ONE is usable by tetraplegic users with severe disabilities and individuals with progressive or acquired disabilities. The interface is compatible with those affected by ALS, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, Parkinsons, cerebrovascular incidents (CVI or stroke), and other acquired brain injuries where existing touch and/or eye tracking technologies are insufficient or difficult to use.
One primary goal in the design of the headset was to minimize the fatigue users had commonly experienced with previous assistive technologies, allowing them to wear the product for extended periods of time. By packaging various technologies within a unit that fits well, feels balanced, and is minimally obtrusive, users can feel more comfortable and confident in corresponding with the world around them.
“STEL’s main focus when creating the headset’s design was to always stay focused on the user. So we asked ourselves, what will make them more comfortable when wearing the headset? How long will the headset be used throughout the day? How do you blend a person with a device? We took note of the technical and ergonomic requirements when the design process started, but we also wanted to draw out specific feelings and emotions the user would experience when utilizing CXN ONE. We wanted the device to be approachable; for the user to be inspired to wear the product and feel a sense of confidence due to its simplicity and aesthetic appeal.”Marco Vanella, STEL’s Creative Director
CXN ONE’s final form needed to be accessible and comfortable for all types of people. Marco describes above how the aesthetics of the headpiece needed to feel human–not like an intimidating or awkward piece of intrusive equipment.
In regards to creating a package blending CXN ONE’s software with Marco’s design, STEL’s Director of Engineering Jared Naito worked on multiple prototypes in order to optimize the internal configuration of the headset.
“In addition to focusing on the ergonomics and aesthetics of the product, we also needed to pay close attention to the technical drivers and requirements for the headset. Fitting all of the signal acquisition and processing hardware that powers the CXN ONE inside a safe device with minimal mass and balanced weight distribution presented a host of challenges. In the end, though, we were successful in our endeavor to create a headpiece that was both aesthetically pleasing, confidence-inspiring, and able to function the way it was intended.”Jared Naito, STEL’s Director of Engineering
In the recent months, both STEL and Cognixion have received multiple recognitions and awards for their collaboration and work done on CXN ONE. In September of 2021, Cognixion ONE received a Gold Award in the IDSA IDEA Awards. In October, the device was nominated for a Red Dot Luminary Award, one of the five nominees chosen out of the 4,000 Red Dot entries received. We also were awarded ‘Best of the Best’ for the 2021 Red Dot Awards.
In November, Cognixion announced they had received $12 million in seed funding to “develop AI-powered neural interfaces that unlock speech and smart home controls for the hundreds of millions of people worldwide with communication and physical disabilities” (Cognixion). The funding that was raised will help Cognixion develop “new adaptive interfaces that make the Assistive Reality technology easier to use by everyone.”
CXN ONE IN THE FUTURE
Here at STEL, we are so excited to see what the future of Cognixion will do for those experiencing communication disabilities:
“From a human-to-human perspective, this device redefines what it means to communicate in real time. It uses speech generation to speak – not text, message, or otherwise indicate – with others, as humans have done since the very beginning of our species. Furthermore, the use of a brain-computer interface allows those with certain comorbidities to utilize the platform, even if previous communication aides have been incompatible. It’s also interesting to consider all of the opportunities that exist for devices like CXN ONE to leverage automations and digital assistants [like Alexa] to interact with the IoT-connected and “smart” devices around them, enabling the same access to convenience and tech tools most people take for granted.”Jared Naito, STEL’s Director of Engineering
With the excitement surrounding our work and collaboration with Cognixion on this project, we are truly delighted to see where this takes our partnership, and we look forward to more opportunities in creating more products like this in the future. CXN ONE was built on the basis of giving those who need it a voice of their own. We believe that with the advanced technology we have at our disposal today, it is possible to continue to build streamlined tools for communication, access, and interaction. In a world where accessibility and communication seems to be lacking for those experiencing speech disabilities, we want to be sure that everyone has an efficient and effective mode of communication available.
Prototyping, often the most exciting and realizing step, is arguably the most valuable phase in the product development process. Prototypes enable critical conversation and decision making, so a thoughtful prototyping process with effective prototypes makes the difference between a good product and a great one.
We sat down with the engineers at STEL to discuss their best tips and tricks to ensure a smooth and successful prototyping process. With their combined experience of what does (and doesn’t) work, this is what they recommend:
1. Ask yourself: What is my main goal for a prototype?
A prototype without an articulated purpose is just another thing cluttering up your studio. Everett Johnson explains: “there are different means to prototyping. During the first steps, you have to focus on what the model is going to target–be thoughtful on the specific questions you want answers for, and then thoughtfully answer them.”
Begin by identifying what’s more important for your prototype: looking like the final product, working like the final product, or both.
Looks-like models are created at a higher resolution with the intention of studying the overall appearance of a product, as well as the intricate details of it’s surface, edges, and textures. These models are purely aesthetically focused and serve as great tools to understand what a product will look and feel like in the user’s hand.
Works-like models are intended for functionality and mechanical testing; something that will display the strength and rigidity of a product. These prototypes might not be the most beautiful, but they definitely will give you an understanding about what works.
Mulin Yang explains: “Outside of the studio, I see people creating their prototypes with the combination of the two, and while this isn’t necessarily wrong, you might want to make sure you aren’t spending unnecessary time and money on prototyping; determine your intention to get the most out of it.”
2. The 3 F’s: Form, Fit, and Function
While articulating the ultimate goal of your prototype up front is critical to an efficient, effective prototyping process, every new prototype is an opportunity to study and improve the 3 F’s. Form, Fit, Function
Nick Wong describes why this is such an important component in his process of prototyping: “When I make my prototypes, I tend to work on them in the order of developing the form first, followed by fit, and then lastly, how it all functions. In every variation of prototype or product, they all work together, but require separate attention and studying as well.”
When considering form, think about the housing in which any of the functionality lives in. What is its shape? Its size? Do those form factors create an optimal environment for the internal components of the product? Could the form be even more optimized for user experience? Form also refers to the ergonomics of the prototype in relation to the user experience. How does it feel in your hand? Does it fit on or with your body? Is it easy to pick up and use? Both looks-like and works-like models can be used for studying the form of a product.
Fit studies focus solely on how each physical component of the prototype join with one another to create the final assembly of the product. For example, parts may need to slide against each other (a loose fit) for mobility, or be closely bonded (a tight fit) to promote strength or waterproofing. Studying fit allows you to understand how each part works together to create a whole product, and how different fits yield different features.
After studying the shape of the prototype and how it works with a human user, functionality tests a prototype’s ability to withstand the environments and situations it is intended for. Where is the product going to experience the most wear and tear? What environment will the product be used in? What material is best suited for intended environment? Will that affect how well it will work or how long it will last? Studying functionality ensures the prototype is built in the most durable way, based on the intended use and user.
3. Verification is key.
Verification is the primary goal in prototyping, but it can often be easy to lose sight of what exactly you are verifying, especially when asking a variety of questions and studying a variety of factors.
“Prototyping allows you to validate concepts and design direction in a very direct and effective manner, especially when looking for certain answers,” Director of Engineering, Jared Naito states. “This allows you to reduce development timelines because you’re able to identify shortcomings through verification and pivot early on.”
4. Give yourself options.
Test a variety of materials, processes, geometries, etc. to ensure that the fit, form, and function are as optimized for the product’s ultimate goal as possible. Prototyping several options can help us down-select which initial product requirements are most crucial for a complete, final design. Prototyping is inherently a process revolving around options, so intentional experimentation is critical.
5. Consider 3D Printing for your prototyping go-to.
The technology surrounding 3D printing has evolved exponentially in recent years. With the accessibility that now exists with 3D printing, the prototyping stage for products has become more cost and time efficient than ever before, allowing for more rapid and accurate verification.
While there are hundreds of other tips and tricks for successful prototyping, these are the five we live by in the STEL studio. Looking for more prototyping best practices? Our engineers check these resources to stay in the know:
No matter what you’re prototyping, remember it will only be a prototype, not the final product. It’s purpose isn’t to be perfect. Ryan–COO of STEL–explains, “It’s called prototyping for a reason, don’t expect a production level part right away. Prototyping is the phase that enables a production level part without a hitch.”