Vibrating sleeve gives wearer a feel for languages
For the past year or so, a student team from the Eindhoven University of Technology has been working on a wearable that could allow folks to understand what's being said in another language through vibrations on the arm.
Though it would be great if everyone spoke the same language, there are actually thousands of distinct languages in use in the world today. While you could put in significant hours learning to communicate in a non-native tongue, in many cases technology can help bridge the divide – from online translation services to smartphone apps to dedicated devices.
The 17 students that make up Team HART at TU Eindhoven have spent the last 12 months working on another way to understand a foreign language – using vibrations.
The system comprises a computer that currently converts written text into English, though the team is working to incorporate AI smarts so that the setup will be able to translate speech in any language, as well as finding a way to embed the technology into clothing.
The students have developed a kind of vibration language based on 39 different sounds of the English language, and each of these is assigned to a unique vibration. The system then uses this database to drive motors embedded in a fabric sleeve worn by the user to form words or sentences.
Unfortunately this does mean that users will need to learn the vibration dictionary before they're able to get a feel for the new communication tool, but Industrial Engineering student Lisa Overdevest, who leads Team HART, reports that she nailed it over the course of a month of one-hour sessions every two days. And once that's done, the computer system will be doing the grunt work of translating from the original text or speech.
If the students can successfully get the system to translate speech in real-time, it not only has the potential to offer wearers a non-invasive way to understand non-native speakers, the team also sees the system being particularly useful to deaf people. Rather than having to rely on visual communication methods such as lip reading or sign language, a person would be able to feel what's being said. Moreover, it could allow deaf users to communicate with just about anyone, whether they know sign language or not.
Future goals of the team include creating new kinds of senses or augmenting existing ones, perhaps developing an online platform where such things can be downloaded or offer new ways to interact with technology.
"Now we only control our mobile phone with our fingertips," said Team HART founder, Mariia Turchina. "Imagine being able to use other parts of your body to take in information more easily, for example through vibrations on your skin. The possibilities are endless."
The team's prototype wearable is being presented to fellow students on Friday November 26. Work on the project continues.