The development of a vest that will allow the profoundly deaf to “feel” and understand speech is currently underway thanks to the engineering students and their mentors at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. The project is being directed by neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman. The vest is being refining with dozens of embedded sensors that vibrate in specific patterns in order to represent words. The vest will respond to input from a phone or tablet app which will isolate speech from ambient sound to produce the vibrations.
“Eagleman introduced VEST – Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer – to the world at a TED Conference talk in March. He is director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine and an adjunct assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, of which he is also an alumnus. His lab studies the complex mechanisms of perception through psychophysical, behavioural and computational approaches as well as neuroscience and the law.”
This low-cost, non invasive device works by collecting sounds from a mobile app and then converts them into tactile vibration patterns felt on the person’s torso. The first VEST prototype put together by the team has 24 actuators sewn into the back of it. A second version which is currently in production is designed to include 40 of the actuators called “vibratory motors.”
“Along with all the actuators, the system includes a controller board and two batteries,” said Gary Woods, the team’s adviser and a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology. “The actuators vibrate in a very complicated pattern based on audio fed through a smartphone. The patterns are too complicated to translate consciously.” With training, the brains of deaf people adapt to the “translation” process, Eagleman said. Test subjects, some of them deaf from birth, “listened” to spoken words and wrote them on a white board. “They can start understanding the ‘language’ of the vest,” he said. “We’ve already run some simple experiments with both hearing and deaf people,” Novich said. “As they use the vest more, they get feedback and know whether they are right or wrong and start to memorize patterns. People are able to identify words they have never encountered before.”
The project has also worked to prompt students to learn skills they wouldn’t necessarily have acquire in a typical engineering classroom. One engineer in the team learned to sew via YouTube and his quick-study abilities have paid dividends already. The study highlights that information can be sent through the human body and the application is not just an augmentative device for the benefit of deaf people. The VEST could be a general neural input device used to receive any form of information.