Hearing vest allows the deaf to feel speech

Published: Jul. 5, 2016 at 3:37 PM EDT
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Using the sense of touch to replace the sense of hearing sounds like science fiction, but it’s very much a reality and it could be a game-changer for the profoundly deaf.

It started out as the doctorate project of Scott Novich in the lab of neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman. The goal was to create a vest that allows the deaf to feel speech.

When learning any new language, you must first start with the basics.

That’s what Jonathan Leach is doing. However, as someone who is profoundly deaf he doesn’t hear the words, he feels them through the vest he is wearing.

Leach said, “You can feel the R. The R in “car” is more rumbly. 'House' has a sudden stop.”

The vest, which also stands for versatile extra-sensory transducer, uses an app that picks up sound frequencies from a microphone and translates them into vibrational patterns.

More than two dozen vibrating motors are sewn into the vest. Lights are used to let you see what the words would feel like.

“You can kind of tell the difference just from the lights,” said Scott Novich, co-founder of Neo-Sensory, Inc.

Leach said at first it just felt like vibrations across his torso, but after a few weeks his brain started to recognize patterns in words.

“You might not totally know quite what the R feels like, you can’t describe it, but your brain knows that’s an R so your brain is associating these feelings with different words just by training all the time,” described Mike Perrotta, clinical coordinator of Neo-Sensory Inc.

Co-founder of Neo-Sensory, Inc. David Eagleman said, “The thing to note is that this is exactly what your inner ear does. Your inner ear just breaks things up into frequencies and you’ve got from high to low and that’s how your brain receives the information. So this is the same thing, it’s just translating it through your torso instead of your inner ear.”

Leach wears the vest every day. It also gives him a gut feeling that this will be a game-changer in the deaf community.

Leach said, “With family who don’t know how to sign, maybe it’ll help me communicate with them better.”

Eagleman said it took deaf volunteers a few days to start learning the patterns in the vibrations and the training lasts several months. The Neo-Sensory team is now working to commercialize the vest and expect that it will cost a few thousand dollars compared to a cochlear implant which can cost around $100,000.



TOPIC: Hearing Vest

REPORT: MB #4118

BACKGROUND: Hearing loss affects 48 million people in the United States; it can happen at birth or it can develop at any age. Out of every 1,000 children in the United States that are born, two to three of them have a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. A child may miss as much as 50 percent of classroom discussion due to a mild hearing loss. About 15 percent of American adults aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing and people with hearing loss wait an average of seven years before seeking help. One of the leading causes of hearing loss is noise.


TREATMENT: There have been many advances in all aspects of hearing health care. Treatment options vary depending on the type of hearing loss, age and lifestyle needs. As of December 2012, over 300,000 cochlear implants have been implanted worldwide. A cochlear implant is an electronic device that can help a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing to hear. It consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second, internal portion that is surgically placed under the skin. Fewer than one in three adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids has ever used hearing aids and that ratio is even lower for adults 20 to 69. Cochlear ear plants can also cost as much as $100,000.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: A new hearing vest is providing for a cheaper alternative. The Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST) is allowing the deaf to 'feel' speech. It uses an app that picks up sound frequencies from a microphone and translates it into vibrational patterns for the wearer. It is estimated that it will cost a few thousand dollars when the VEST hits the market. Right now, the VEST is focusing on restoring hearing, but eventually researchers want to use the same system to augment human perception in new ways. David Eagleman, Co-Founder of Neo-Sensory and a neuroscientist wants to be able to one day to introduce the VEST data into human perception, such as having the ability to sense the weather as a naturally- evolved trait.