Feb. 23, 2012 at 1:17 PM ET
An iPhone, an inconspicuous dental retainer, and a pierced tongue may soon be all that's required to drive around a wheelchair or control a computer mouse, according to new research.
The breakthrough is aimed at improving life for people afflicted with high-level spinal cord injuries and is considered a major upgrade to the so-called Tongue Drive system under development at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The custom-molded dental retainer contains magnetic field sensors mounted on its four corners that detect the movement of a tiny magnet attached to the user's tongue. The system can interpret seven different tongue moves to drive a wheelchair or surf the Web.
In earlier versions of the system, the sensors that track the movement of the magnet were mounted on a headset worm by the user. Whenever the headset shifted, the whole system needed to be recalibrated.
"Because the dental appliance is worn inside the mouth and molded from dental impressions to fit tightly around an individual's teeth with clasps, it is protected from these types of disturbances," Maysam Ghovanloo, a Georgia Tech engineer, explained in a news release.
Signals from the retainer are transmitted to an iPhone or iPod containing software that interprets the user's tongue commands by determining the position of the magnet. The Apple gadget is attached to the wheelchair using a custom interface.
Preliminary tests indicate an increased sensitivity in the new system that may open the door for additional commands.
The team has recruited 11 individuals with high-level spinal injuries to test drive the system. Each had their tongue pierced and were given a tongue stud that has a tiny magnet embedded in the upper ball. So far, it appears worthwhile.
"Users have been able to learn to use the system, move the computer cursor quicker and with more accuracy, and maneuver through the obstacle course faster and with fewer collisions," Ghovanloo said.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.