Many types of wearable devices attempt to enhance a human sense that for one reason or another has been impaired. Eyeglasses and contact lenses are a classical example, dating back to even before “wearable device” became the next big thing. Cochlear implants and hearing aids have helped the deaf to hear for decades,
A new type of wearable device, according to a recent story in the Atlantic, has succeeded in substituting one impaired sense, in this case hearing, and has succeeded in creating a brand new one that works almost or even just as well. The device is called the VEST or the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, an innovation with some profound implications for the deaf and hearing impaired.
As its name implies, the device is worn as a vest over a person’s chest and torso. A suite of sensors picks up sounds and vibrates, allowing the wearer to feel rather than hear sounds. The neat trick about the VEST is that the vibrations are not code that the wearer has to learn to interpret. The vibrations occur at the exact frequency on which the sound is taking place.
The team from Rice University that developed the VEST, led by neuroscientist David Eagleman, tested the wearable device on a 37-year-old deaf man. Within five days, the man was able to understand spoken words. His brain had rewired itself to interpret the sounds, giving him a new sense that now substitutes for the hearing he has lost.
The VEST has obvious applications beyond helping the hearing impaired. Virtual reality would be enhanced by allowing people to feel as well as hear and see. Anyone remotely controlling a device such as a drone would be able to “feel” the device’s movements and status. The possibilities are almost endless.
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