The sound of silence

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration at Demofall 07, being held this week in San Diego, came from one of the youngest entrepreneurs in attendance. Twenty-four-year-old Michael Callahan, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, attended the conference as part of a group of three young innovators identified by the Kauffman Foundation.

During panel discussion with these young entrepreneurs, a departure from the usual one-company-at-a-time-for-six-minutes Demo format, Callahan stood silently staring at his computer, wearing a sensor placed against his neck, and made the computer speak for him. The technology, which he calls Audeo, as reported in Spectrum's automation blog, requires the user to think about talking without moving his lips or using his breath, and translates the neurological signals into speech. Callahan, and his new company, Ambient, expect the first customers for this technology to be people with ALS or other disabilities that inhibit speech; that product will be out in about a year. Down the line, Callahan expects the Audeo technology to migrate into the consumer market and enable silent communication with computers and videogames.

While Callahan may be young to lead a start-up effort, heâ''s been heading down this road for a long time. Years ago he set a goal of starting a company before he turned 30, he reported. And the thought sensing aspect? Well, back in preschool, Callahan recalls, â''At nap time, I didnâ''t want to just lay there like a dead fish, I wanted to do things. So I asked my friend next to me, â''tell me if you can hear this.â''â'' Callahan tried talking to his friend in his head, and was pleased to find out that his friend could hear nothing, which meant he was free to think all he wanted without disturbing anyone.

And now he can talk to his computer without talking. Or typing.

Next for Callahan? Ultimately, he told the audience of entrepreneurs, press, and venture capitalists, he wants to develop a technology that can transfer human memory directly into a handheld device.

And no one blinked. Callahan is one innovator that this crowd, at least, will be watching.

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