Wearable devices help people 'feel' sounds in their environment
Neosensory's wrist devices provide vibrational feedback for sounds
What would it be like if you could feel sounds like doorbells ringing, alarm clocks buzzing, and water faucets accidentally left dripping?
New devices that turn sound into dynamic patterns of vibrations do just that, and they're helping those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing access vital information in a unique way. The company Neosensory now offers several wearable devices resembling a wristwatch that mimic the ear’s cochlea by sending vibrations via the nervous system to the brain, effectively creating another sensory channel to the brain’s auditory processing center. (They can be worn by people who don't have hearing loss, too.)
Turning sound into unique vibrations
Dr. David Eagleman, PhD, a Stanford University neuroscientist, and co-founder of Neosensory Dr. Scott Novich, PhD, began researching sensory substitutions for the Deaf in 2013. The technology they build essentially focuses on sending data streams to the brain through the sense of touch, known as haptic feedback.
“The brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull, yet it constructs this whole world for us,” Eagleman explained, describing the eyes, ears and fingers as peripheral “plug and play” sensory devices. “Your brain doesn’t know and it doesn’t care where it gets the data from. It is fundamentally always trying to get information across the senses. Whatever information comes in, it just figures out what to do with it.”
Adjustable settings via smartphone app
The wearable devices can be programmed to user preferences. For example:
The wearables also feature an alarm setting, which users can customize with their desired vibration pattern.
How these products differ from current assistive technology
Assistive listening devices such as hearing loops, FM systems, infrared systems, and hearing aid accessories rely on amplification to deliver sound. Assistive alerting devices, such as bed shakers and flashing strobe lights, use touch and sight to alert users to alarm situations. There are also new smartwatch apps that identify sounds and display them as text on the watch face, such as the free SoundWatch for watches that use Google Android OS.
Neosensory's products use sensory substitution to feed sound information directly to the brain through the skin. They benefit those who were born Deaf as well as those who were born with hearing but currently use hearing aids or other assistive listening devices. Users describe wearing the wrist devices as a tri-modal hearing experience.
“They are seeing someone’s lips move, hearing something through their ears and they’re feeling vibration on their skin,” Eagleman said. “When they put all three of those channels together they get a really rich sense of what’s going on.”
Related: Why you should learn to lipread when you're hard of hearing
The Clarify product is intended for people who have high-frequency hearing loss. The device can be programmed to vibrate to indicate different high-pitched sounds. After several weeks, the brain starts to adapt and incorporates the haptic feedback into auditory pathways.
The Sound Awareness product is intended for people who are Deaf or severely hearing impaired. It can signal the wearter to important sounds like doorbells, water running, people talking, dogs barking, babies crying and so on.
The Duo is meant to help users adapt and habituate to tinnitus by training them to focus on external sounds.
How much do they cost?
Buying options range from $249 for Duo (used short-term) or $999 for long-term use for Clarify and Sound Awareness programs.