When British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking goes on a trip, there is far more at stake than simply buying a new toothbrush. Hawking is afflicted with advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease and communicates through movements of his cheek muscle. If his computer hardware stops working and cannot be repaired, he can’t communicate with the world, but a new custom-built computer system is making Hawking’s travel easier.
Intel engineer Travis Bonifield recently returned from Cambridge, U.K., after delivering a new computer system to Hawking. This isn’t the first system that Bonifield, based in Hillsboro, Ore., has brought to the famous physicist — he’s been working with Hawking for more than a decade. The latest custom system, a 2 in 1 based on a Lenovo ThinkPad x230t powered by an Intel Core i7 processer, combines a notebook with a 12″ tablet that has a daylight readable display.
While Hawking has always traveled with a lengthy list of backup hardware, the process of getting everything ready to go can be burdensome. The computer itself is only one piece of the total system that includes a hardware voice synthesizer, a peripheral box filled with a range of devices including a USB hub, audio amp and hardware voice interface, the power modules and speaker. Until recently, when Hawking went on a trip, his assistants had to remove the various pieces of the system from his main wheelchair, which he only uses in the U.K., and mount them onto a folding travel wheelchair.
Over the 13 years he’s been working on this project, Bonifield has always set up a single system for Hawking and then left behind a “bag of parts” in case something were to break or need replacing, including a backup laptop. On this trip, Bonifield and Rob Weatherly, an Intel technical marketing engineer based in Swindon, U.K., who is the local contact for repairing Hawking’s system when needed, delivered two complete systems, setting up one on each of Hawking’s wheelchairs.
The dual systems solve two problems, according to Bonifield. In past years, Intel engineers would interrupt whatever Hawking was doing to install a new system on his chair and he would wait patiently (Bonifield says he always waits patiently) while it was mounted and configured. If something went wrong, the engineers had to tear it all off again, reinstall the old computer and go back to the drawing board. This time they simply installed everything on the travel chair first. After it was ready and tested, they moved Hawking to the travel chair while installing everything on his regular chair. The process was less intrusive than in the past and gave the engineers room to work.
The second, and more significant benefit, is that with a full system installed on each chair, Hawking’s assistants no longer need to dismantle and install the system on a different chair every time he travels. Now they can simply unplug the laptop (without even shutting it down) and plug it into the other chair. Hawking can now be transitioned between chairs in just a few moments, and if something does break, he can be moved to the other chair while it is repaired.
The design of the system Hawking uses is pretty simple, according to Bonifield. There are a few USB devices attached to the computer along with four converter modules that run from the wheelchair battery and provide power to the various system components. Dave Rittenhouse, a mechanical engineer based at the Intel Folsom campus, designed the computer chassis and coordinated its manufacture. Hawking’s previous computer, a Lenovo ThinkPad x220t, has the same mechanical shape and uses the same computer enclosure as the new system. Rittenhouse did, however, redesign the chassis for the hardware voice synthesizer card and had a few standard metal boxes milled for the peripheral devices.
Bonifield planned, assembled and tested the electrical connections in the system, which include the power delivery, synthesizer board, the audio amplifier and the computer itself. Peripherals include a USB hub that attaches to the synthesizer board via a USB serial dongle, an audio amplifier and speaker, and a USB hardware device that interfaces with an IR sensor on Hawking’s eyeglasses, which he uses to control the computer by moving his cheek muscle.
Bonifield says that he’s often asked what it’s like to work with Hawking and notes that in his experience the renowned physicist is simply “Stephen” and no one who has known him for more than a few minutes keeps up with formalities. He does note that working with Hawking can sometimes be lively as there are rarely fewer than two of his cheerful nursing or administrative staff nearby while his voice synthesizer provides a constant level of white noise. But Hawking himself is, out of necessity, a person of few words and the words he does choose to share are direct and purposeful, but also kind.