The deaf may soon 'hear' if researchers at MIT's Sensory Communication Group turn out to be successful in developing their new generation of tactile devices. These, they say, will convert sound waves into vibrations which will enable the deaf to feel them by their skin; this will help them read lips more accurately.
This work attains significance considering the fact that lip-reading has a drawback: Certain consonants (for example, p and b) can be nearly impossible to distinguish by sight alone.
Once developed, the researchers say, the devices they are working on will be particularly prove an important tool for deaf people who rely on lip reading, and can't use or afford cochlear implants.
"Most deaf people will not have access to that technology in our lifetime. Tactile devices can be several orders of magnitude cheaper than cochlear implants," said Ted Moallem, a graduate student working on the project.
In collaboration with Charlotte Reed, senior research scientist in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, Moallem is developing a software programme that can be compatible with current smart phones, allowing such devices to be transformed into unobtrusive tactile aids for the deaf.
"Anyone who has a smart phone already has much of what they would need to run the program," including a microphone, digital signal-processing capability, and a rudimentary vibration system, says Moallem.
The MIT researchers are testing devices that have at least two vibration ranges, one for high-frequency sounds and one for low-frequency sounds.
Moallem is of the opinion that such handheld devices may make it easier for deaf people to follow conversations than with lip reading alone, which requires a great deal of concentration.
"It's hard to have a casual conversation in a situation where you have to be paying attention like that," he says.
Current prototypes can be held in the user's hand or worn around the back of the neck, but once the acoustic processing software is developed, it could be easily incorporated into existing smart phones, according to the researchers.
With an eye on realising such applications, the research team are investigating the best way to transform sound waves into vibrations.
The MIT researchers hope to improve existing tactile aids, which have been in use for decades, by refining the acoustic signal processing systems to provide tactile cues that are tailored to boost lip-reading performance.