But Jorgensen can expect a huge hurdle: conversational speech is very different from uttering a word, says Cavallo. "I wonder how well the system will recognize subvocal speech during conversation and even at…the level of individual sounds," he says. "How well can it recognize a 'p' from a 'b', for example? How consistently can it do that?"
Given simple commands— words that Jorgensen considers small mathematical sets— the accuracy is "up to the high 90s to 100 percent. When we're talking about something like vowels and consonants, we're still in the 70 percent range. That's not too bad but we've got a ways to go yet," he says.
Still, the expectation that subvocal speech devices might retool communication is high. Applications could include communication in "covert operations with military troops, private speech between individuals, situations where you can't speak normally, underwater or in fire gear, or possibly where there's high noise or you have a respirator," Jorgensen says. He also envisions it blunting a modern pet peeve: loud, public cell phone use. One day, he says scientists will most likely develop a silent cell phone.
For speech-language pathologists like Cavallo and patients like Pinsker, the real excitement is in the technology's potential to impact quality of life in people suffering from speech ailments. Jorgensen says that if a person can pronounce an individual word consistently and it "translates into an electrical signal" that he can measure, he can "have that electrical signal be related to a word that anybody can understand."
"It's certainly exciting stuff," Cavallo says. "I guess a few years ago it might be the stuff of science fiction."
Jorgensen cautions that it's way too soon to tell how effective subvocal speech detection will translate medically. Instead, he offers to demonstrate what he knows it can already do: Before a wide screen, he maneuvers a simulated Mars Rover over Martian terrain. It dips, falls, climbs over craters and turns abruptly to the left and right, all at Jorgensen's prompting, all without him uttering a sound.
Consider it NASA's first giant leap towards deciphering subvocal speech.