Disability & Accessibility

Rice U Engineers Develop Vibrating Vest for the Deaf

A group of engineering students at Rice University and their mentors at Rice and Baylor College of Medicine are working on a vest that lets profoundly deaf people understand speech through vibrations.

The Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST) contains dozens of sensors that vibrate in specific patterns to represent words. Scott Novich, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Rice, developed an algorithm that lets the VEST filter out ambient sounds to "hear" only the human voice. The VEST works in conjunction with a mobile app that records audio and isolates the speech. The VEST then maps those speech sounds to patterns of vibrations. Severely hearing impaired people can wear the VEST and learn to interpret the vibration patterns as speech.

The first prototype has 24 actuators — small motors that create the vibrations — sewn into the back of the VEST. A second version with 40 actuators is currently in production. In addition to the actuators, the system includes a controller board and two batteries.

According to Gary Woods, a professor of computer technology at Rice and the team's adviser, the vibration patterns created by the VEST "are too complicated to translate consciously." However, the deaf people can train their brains to translate the vibrations. Test subjects, some of whom were born deaf, have already used the VEST successfully in some simple experiments.

Abhipray Sahoo, one of the engineering students working on the project, said the VEST could help people other than the hearing impaired, too. "We see other applications for what we're calling tactile sensory substitution," he said in a prepared statement. "Information can be sent through the human body. It's not just an augmentative device for the deaf. The VEST could be a general neural input device. You could receive any form of information."

The team of Rice University students are working under the direction of David Eagleman, 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. The students refer to themselves as the Eagleman Substitution Project (ESP) team.

Eagleman presented the VEST at a TED Talk in March, and the team will present its work at the annual Design of Medical Devices conference at the University of Minnesota in April.

A video about the VEST project can be found on YouTube.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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