Beyond the Hill

Rice University students create sensory substitution device to allow deaf people to feel sound

Biko Walker | Contributing Illustrator

Students at Rice University are working on an innovative science project that would allow deaf people to feel sound.

Undergraduate students at Rice, under the supervision of Scott Novich, a doctoral candidate at the university, have been working relentlessly on a vest that allows deaf people to feel sound through sets of vibrations.

The core focus of this project at the moment is perfecting a sound-to-touch sensory substitution device, and they have the theoretical framework in place behind the conversions that go into such technology, Novich said.

Prior to this project, several decades ago, there was work done and efforts made in an attempt to convert audio to touch to aid the deaf, but the theoretical framework and technology weren’t substantial enough to be successful, which is why now is the ideal time to complete such a project, Novich said.

The process begins with a phone or tablet with Android technology that picks up audio and then uses algorithms to compute patterns mathematically that convert the sound to the sense of touch, Novich said.

These data frames are then transmitted through Bluetooth to the vest that the person is wearing. Vibratory motors in the vest, similar to those in cell phones, pick up the signals that cause certain motors to vibrate in ways that reflect the full spectrum of sound, he said.

Novich added that these vibrations are not similar to Braille, as they allow the brain to pick up on patterns of all types of sounds.

The project began roughly three years ago at Baylor College of Medicine with David Eagleman, who became the adviser of Novich, whose work on this project is part of his Ph.D. thesis.

During a March TED talk, Eagleman discussed the vest and whether we can create new senses for humans.

“It is just what we have inherited from a complex road of evolution, but it’s not what we have to stick with it,” Eagleman said in his TED Talk. “Our best proof of principle of this is comes from what is called sensory substitution, and that refers to feeding information into the brain via unusual sensory channels, and the brain just figures out what to do with it.”

The vest is effective in allowing the brain to pick up on the patterns of vibrations generated by audio that people who were born profoundly deaf have the ability to pick up patterns of vibrations and convert them to meaningful words after only a few days of training with the vest, said Novich and Eagleman.

While the project is led by Novich and Eagleman, the undergraduate students at Rice are wrapping up the prototype and working on making it quieter and lighter, Novich said. Those students have worked on both the hardware and software behind the vest, he added.

A difference that separates this vest from other technologies that would aid deaf people in being able to interpret audio by other means is that this vest is relatively inexpensive compared to other devices, he said. Novich and Eagleman added that the vest has the potential to be mass-produced.

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