Super-Duper Voice Box


Introduction: Super-Duper Voice Box

Often in life, there comes a time when we find ourselves to be "Someone Else". Some things just happen to "Someone Else" but never really impede our own daily routines. In 1999, I became "Someone Else" when my firstborn daughter suffered traumatic brain injuries during her birth. Suddenly, those "inspirational" stories on TV and the special parking spots and 36" doorways came crashing down and I found myself to be in a whole different world that had previously been populated by Someone Else. Now I get advice and information from "They"; "They" say this, "They" say that.... I'd really like to meet "They" because so much of his information is bad.

One of the effects of Kayla's injuries is that she has no motor skills to speak of and no way to speak of them in the first place. She has now developed skills that will allow her to work simple switches with her head. With a switch on each side she can make simple binary choices by pressing a pad with her chin or cheek. So how do you make this work for speech? Well, there's always this device but notice it is more than $70 when a year or so ago we got a similar device free in a fast-food kid's meal and it looked like SpongeBob Squarepants. From $0 to $70 in 6.5 seconds. Unbelievable.

I'm cheap.

So began my quest for the affordable device.

Step 1: What Is It?

Okay, here is what we are making. This is a device that will be attached to Kayla's wheelchair. 2 devices actually, one left and one right. On the box is found a pair of switches, a microphone, a speaker and a 1/8" mono phono jack.

To operate this, a helper records a message using the microphone and one of the two switches. The second switch allows the helper to test the message for suitablity. The box is returned to its place and the lead from a head switch is plugged into the 1/8" jack. Once the head switch is positioned for use, the user can activate the message at will, providing a degree of communication where there had been none.

Step 2: Materials

After a quick Google, I found this site where I was able to get recordable sound modules intended for greeting cards. Radio Shack provided the rest.

#1 - 1 Recordable sound module
#2 - 2 panel-mount switches to replace the stock switches on the module. One momentary Normaly Open and one momentary Normaly Closed
#3 - 1 panel-mount 1/8" audio jack, mono
#4 - 1 project box of suitable size to hold the components. Get creative with this. I intend this as a Christmas present, so I am out of time to come up with a funny/clever enclosure. I welcome all ideas in the comments section!

Step 3: Determine the Component Layout

Now that you have your parts, determine how you want the controls laid out. The switches should be easily accessed without being in danger of accidental activation or damage. The speaker should not be covered, and should be some distance from the microphone. I haven't experienced any feedback with it yet, but why take chances? Your module may work differently than mine.

The speaker fits neatly in the lid, so here is where it will live, with some nice neat little air holes. The mic will mount in a hole below that, with the switches in between. The phono jack will be in the top of the box and the circuit board will have to be happy with the base of the box.

Step 4: Electronics Mods

First thing to do to the module is replace the stock switches with your new ones.

The record function was controlled by pressing two buttons simutaneously. I cut off both buttons, shorted one pair of leads and soldered the NO switch to the second pair. When pressed, the new switch will activate the record function.

The play function is handled by a spring switch that was intended to be interupted by a piece of paper as a greeting card is opened and closed. When the card is opened, the paper pulls away from the contacts, the switch makes contact and maintains the circuit until the recording has completed. The switch stays closed and the circuit shuts down. To play it again, the switch must be opened to "reset" the recording then closed to start play. This is why a NC switch is needed for this part.

Step 5: The Box Step

Now that the mods are mostly complete, it's time to fit the junk in the trunk. We laid out the panel earlier just because I wanted to do something while my new soldering iron warmed up. Now it's a matter of putting it all together.

The speaker is Superglued in place behind the screen we drilled. I just used a series of drops around the perimeter to secure it.

The buttons attach with included hardware, pretty much self explanatory. Same with the phono jack.

The microphone got hot glued behind its little screen. I wasn't sure the CA wouldn't ruin it.

The circuit included a tiny little LED for the purpose of making sure that you were properly activating the buttons to record. This just happened to fit in a hole that the speaker didn't quite cover, so I hot glued it in place also.

Step 6: Mount Up!

To attach the box to the chair in a secure, useable way, we will use straps of hook and loop fastener. I want to say "Velcro", but I don't know how to put that little trademark thingy in the text. I'll glue and screw (redundancy, redundancy, redundancy) a strap to the back of the box and then it can be wrapped around the handlebars or chest straps of the chair.



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    It's really just a "record your own message" greeting card. I've replaced the card with a box and changed the switch to a 1/8" jack. The module itself is, basically, a tape recorder like you say. Instead of a tape cassette there is a digital recorder, so this is more like recording a .wav file on your computer. Playback is achieved through the head switches.

    Wow This is really good. Way more stuff involved too.
    The one I just published all fits into the lid and is a stand alone. I never thought it could be used for what you got it for.
    I think we built these things about the same time too. I got my parts on Feb. 3, 2010.
    Mine cost $12.50
    There is nothing new under the sun.
    Good work.

    Is this the Radio Shack part you refer to for the recording module?
    Radio Shack - 9V Recording Module, $10.99

    Have you tried something like these? They are cheaper and appear to do similar jobs, but have longer recording times available:
    Voice Recorder

    This thing looks cool.  Your link to the supplier off Google won't come up.  I have an idea and would like to see where you got the sound module from.  Thanks for any help

    2 replies

     Guess I should have given that info some other way.  A link is bound to break after 2 years!

    Ultimately, I found a module at Radio Shack.  It worked perfectly out of the box.  I noticed last weekend that these modules can also be found in a number of consumer products like greeting cards.  You could hit your local Hallmark Cards and stock up on them for $3-$4 each.  If you can't find them at Radio Shack, then just keep your eyes peeled for other things that use them and you can scavenge and salvage anything you need.

    Thanks, I should have noticed the date.  I did find some on Google and various sizes and configurations.  Right from the manufacturer but most minimum order is 5 to 8000.  You are right, Radio Shack or Hallmark at least until I perfect this thing.  Mark

    hey great instructable... i hope u and ur family are well

    Hey brother, great instructable. In the realm of developmental disabilities today, "They" always need to be questioned and "Their" methods of rehabilitation expanded upon. My brother Peter was born with a lack of oxygen and has brain damage (he's 45) and "They" said to put him away because he would never function. My parents thought otherwise and now he's very functional and lives in a semi-independent apartment with other folks with DD. Not so ironically (I'm a Christ-follower so irony doesn't really fly with me) when I assembled my band Tripleshift, our drummer Sean just happened to have a daughter who suffered from meconium aspiration at birth causing brain damage. She's very similar to your daughter in many ways and I believe we were brought together because of my experience with my brother. Keep doing what you do and keep fighting for that precious daughter of yours. I believe the Lord gives special people TO special people because He knows that we have the ability and love that they need. Probably don't need to tell you that they return it 100-fold. God bless. Joe Faraldi

    Most excellent Instructable, and a way cool application as well! My wife and I are very lucky that our daughter (six months old) does not have a disability. My wife does, however, and I have had great fun coming up with projects for (and sometimes actually building) adaptive equipment.

    As you mentioned below, the inventiveness of (desperate or otherwise) parents knows few bounds. Have you done any other AT projects for your Kayla? I didn't see any other I'bles in your profile, but slideshows or videos of finished products are equally welcome!

    If you have needs for AT, but don't know how to get it done, there are some cool organizations (besides your local ILC) that could help. Through the Looking Glass in Berkeley provides resources for parents with disabilities, but I would expect that their OTs could point you toward assistance for your daughter. Tetra in Canada and Remap in Britain recruit techies to design and make adaptive devices.

    2 replies

    Thanks for the info and comments. I have dreamed up several other projects, but seldom manage to bring anything to fruition. One of my favorites was promptly quashed by my wife: As Kayla's little brother was learning to walk, it made perfect sense to me to harness him to the wheelchair in a rickshaw setup. Move her, steady him! Seems my wife (ever sensible woman that she is) became concerned about the potential for calls to the child abuse hotline.

    Yeah, engineering vs. social sensivity....I keep wanting to paint dots on Mad's forehead and see when she notices them in the mirror. My wife (the psych major) says, "No psych experiments with my daughter!" I guess that means the T-maze is right out ;->

    Nice idea, well done that man. When you come to a "novelty" version, why not a teddy bear? Microphone in one ear, record switch in the other. Speaker in the bear's muzzle. Remove the stuffing from the belly, replace it with a rubber bladder plumbed to a switch. When your daughter presses the tummy, the bear plays the phrase. To record the phrase, squeeze the ear and the tummy at once, then speak into the bear's ear. Not much use in her wheelchair, but maybe useful for calling for attention from bed or similar.

    1 reply

    I like the idea. If Build-a-Bear Workshop can drop a unit in a bear, why not me? Key to operation is the headswitch connection, but that can be accomodated by mounting the jack in a piece of scrap PCB and drilling a series of small holes to sew it to the teddy's "skin". A smallish bear can be attached to the chair and would be very cute. Next iteration, I'm on it!

    nice idea, i have to agree with everybody this is a very cool instructable too

    Nice write-up :-)

    Now, for the part where I put into writing, the evidence that i over think simple stuff.

    Binary is better than nothing... but TRINARY give much more flexibility.
    (yes/no vs yes/no/somethingelse)

    Found a site for a D.I.Y. Suck/Puff Switch. ( quite a bit cheaper than the $100+ switches I've seen advertised)
    And, a source of a very cheap switch to use in the construction

    Another source of cheap electronics that'll do the same thing is Hitclips Downloader( something like 30 seconds of recording. (I have one, if you want to experiment, before buying a batch-though I'm in chicago so shipping MAY be prohibitive).
    Oh, and now that i think of it..."custom voice message" greeting cards might work pretty well too.

    Counting from the date you posted... She's 8 now?
    You seem plenty skilled with the soldering iron.
    When the time comes to upgrade to an electric wheelchair you'll already be set! It will take away communications... but add self-mobility! 2 cheek switches for left/right, and a puff/suck switch for forward.
    If you want circuits.. let us know! we'd all be glad to collaborate on a "Make your own" project like that.

    1 reply

    Yup, she's 8 going on 9. I don't know that we'll ever put her in an electric chair. She doesn't see well enough to navigate a several hundred pound machine through the house without crushing toes! My soldering skills were refined by rebuilding cannon plugs in Hueys, Cobras and Blackhawks. Not much room there for learning component-level electronics though, hence Step 5. Until we can get some more substantive communication out of her, we don't know her mental/learning abilities, so it may be that she can't handle trinary. Won't know if we don't try though - glad I bought 3 modules!

    I've never really been exposed to profoundly disabled people, so please forgive me if this idea is out in left field or anything. But... What if you could teach Kayla (and other disabled people) to use Morse Code? You could possibly use whatever mechanism works best (the switches you use, or the suck/puff switch ironsmiter mentioned) to then create messages in Morse Code, which could then probably be easily converted by a computer into text or possibly even audio. I'm sure there's a good chance this line of thinking has already been followed, but it not, maybe it's something to consider.

    1 reply

    I'm certain that there are already people out there using that system or something similar. Never discount the creativity and adaptability of the Desperate Parent! This probably would not work for Kayla though, because it requires more precise control for a longer period of time than she can usually manage. I like that you are thinking in terms of creative solutions for unfamiliar problems - keep it up, you may be the next Edison in the ADA industry!