I have a friend who is hard-of-hearing. I think it is absolutely amazing that we are still able to talk about anything and everything; by watching the movements of my lips. One of the things she has confessed to me, though, is the difficulty of telling people that she is hard-of-hearing, and that reading from lips is sometimes a challenge.
Even though there are options available for those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, such as cochlear implants (a small, complex electronic device with a microphone, a speech processor, a transmitter and receiver, and an electrode arry which collects impulses from the receiver and sends them to different parts of the auditory sensor), they have to be put in by surgery, and they are very expensive.
When I saw this article, I ran to show it to her.
Colorado State University came up with a device that allows users to hear with their tongues. Even though it doesn’t restore hearing, “it converts sounds into distinct patterns of vibration that can be felt by the tongue, and thus helps the user to interpret sensations as sounds or words”. This technology would be cheaper, and it would not require surgery.
This works similarly to cochlear implants (mentioned above). When the sound is picked up, a Bluetooth earpiece detects sounds from the environment, and are transmitted to a receiver/processor. Here, they are converted to distinct patterns in the form of electrical impulses representing words. These patterns are picked up by the electrode-dense retainer which is fitted to the roof of the mouth, and when the tongue is pressed to the retainer, the distinct pattern will be played. Even though this will take some training, the brain will eventually be able to interpret and understand the sounds and words being spoken.
The researchers believe that “it’s much simpler than undergoing surgery” and they “think it will be a lot less expensive than cochlear implants,” (John Williams, associate professor in Dept. of Mechanical Engineering and project lead).
This is very similar to Braille, where with practice, a blind person can learn to read with a pattern of bumps representing a letter or a word. The same concept is applied, except for the fact “the brain subconsciously associates the various tongue patterns with the different sounds that are being uttered in real time.”
“We’re using sound information instead of symbolic information,” says JJ Moritz, a CSU graduate student and research team member.
This device is relatively new, and the researchers say it is best suited for people who are not completely deaf, so the device can strengthen the sounds they are already able to hear. The device’s power is also very localized; it runs at 5 volts, and is run with a 9 volt battey. “… the worst that could possibly happen is that it’ll feel like touching 9 volts to your tongue. But we don’t send any current through your tongue,” says Mortiz. The device also still has to be perfected, and be able to comfortably sit inside a person’s mount. Once completed, it will be a cheaper alternative to cochlear implants, being offered at $2000.
The full article can be found here, and a video released by the Colorado State University is below: