Hi-Tech Vests Could Help Communication For Hearing-Impaired

Using the sense of touch to replace the sense of hearing may seem like science fiction, but it's very much a reality and it could be a game-changer for people who are 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.

Jonathan Leach is profoundly deaf and while he doesn't hear words, he feels them through the vest he wears.

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

The V.E.S.T., 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.

"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," Eagleman said.

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

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

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.

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