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Vest translates sound into vibration for the hearing impaired

Sean Buckley, @seaniccus
September 11, 2014
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When we think about gadgets to aid the hearing impaired, cochlear implants usually come to mind -- but these devices are expensive and require invasive surgery. Neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman and graduate student Scott Novich have another idea: sensory substation clothing. The two are developing a hearing device that you wear on your torso. It's called the Vibrotactile Extra-Sensory Transducer (or simply "Vest" for short) and it translates sound into tactile feedback. Eaglman says that with training, the brain can actually learn to translate Vest's vibrations into useful data -- meaning that wearers could potentially "hear" through their skin.

It sounds insane, but Eagleman says it's not all that different than from how hearing works naturally. The brain, he explains, can't actually hear -- it's just interpreting electrical signals and presenting it to your consciousness as perception. Cochlear implants work in the same manner, but Eagleman's research is trying to accomplish a similar effect without surgery. If your body can interpret electrical signals from the ear as sound or data, why can't it do the same with sound-based electrical signals that originate from the surface of your skin?

Right now, the Vest is focusing on restoring hearing, but eventually Eagleman wants to use the same system to augment human perception in new ways. What if you could absorb weather or stock market data naturally through your skin? Eagleman believes it's possible, and your brain would natively introduce the Vest's data into human perception as if sensing the weather was a naturally evolved trait.

Well, that's the hypothesis, at least. The team is trying to raise $40,000 on Kickstarter to refine and build a better prototype, initiate behavioral testing and study the brain mechanisms that make sensory substitution possible. Interested? Check out that Kickstarter link below to learn more.

[Image credit: Scott Novich and David Eagleman]

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