A group of researchers has developed an electronic wheelchair that users can operate with their tongue using a silicone sheet attached to the chin.

The invention is cleaner and more comfortable than previously developed models, as it does not require a device to be placed inside the user's mouth, according to project leader Makoto Sasaki, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering at Iwate University.

"There are many people who can move their tongues despite having spinal cord damage that makes them unable to move their hands and feet. I want to commercialize the wheelchair to assist the lives of severely disabled people," Sasaki said.

The wheelchair utilizes faint electric signals generated by moving suprahyoid muscles, which are activated in opening the mouth and swallowing food.

The user attaches to his or her jaw a silicone sheet with multiple electrodes that send signals to a computer. When the tongue moves in a certain direction, such as "right" or "front," the computer recognizes the signals and instructs the wheelchair to move in the direction indicated.

According to Sasaki, past attempts to create tongue-operated wheelchairs ran into problems with hygiene and comfort, as they required users to place parts inside their mouths.

The research group is planning to conduct road tests with people with disabilities as they seek to shorten the time lag between tongue motions and the wheelchair's movement.