human body

Smart sleeve lets wearer feel and understand any foreign language

A student team from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has developed a wearable device in the form of a smart sleeve that can convert text – in any language – into vibrations.

Through these vibrations, it is possible to understand any foreign language. The HART team plans to present its application tomorrow (Friday) to a number of fellow students on the campus of TU/e.

It is thought that this is the first time that a sleeve with vibrating motors has been used for communication. The students have developed a 'vibratory language' based on the 39 different sounds of the English language.

The sleeve works with a computer programme that converts written text into English and then into sound units, which in turn are converted into vibrations. Each sound has its own vibration. The vibrations that a user feels on his or her arm through the sleeve, together form words and sentences.

Team member Lisa Overdevest, an Industrial Engineering student (pictured below), learned to interpret the self-designed vibration language in one month by practising for an hour every two days. As a result, she is now able to understand someone through vibrations; she can therefore communicate with people literally by feeling. HART hopes that this will enable people to perceive all languages in the same non-invasive way, in order to promote greater understanding between individuals.

The student team – consisting of 17 students from different faculties – worked on the production of the sleeve for a year. They hope to develop the innovative application further. Currently, users can feel and understand written language, but according to HART, in the near future it should be possible to convert spoken language directly into vibrations. For this, artificial intelligence (AI) must be integrated into the design; HART is already working on this. In addition, the team has an idea about building the vibration equipment directly into clothing.

Lisa Overdevest learned to interpret the vibrating language in one month

Image credit: Rien Boonstoppel

If the HART team succeeds in converting spoken language into vibrations, this could prove highly beneficial for deaf people. They would then be able to converse with someone by feeling, without having to have the conversation partner in sight, as is the case with lip reading or sign language. Moreover, when a deaf person has mastered the vibratory language, he or she could easily communicate with anyone, regardless of whether the other person is proficient in sign language or not. Simply talking would be sufficient.

Ultimately, the team wants to create new human senses or improve existing ones, which is the essence of human augmentation. In the case of the smart sleeve it is speech, but images or smells are also possible in the future. The ultimate goal is to create an online platform where people can download new senses.

Mariia Turchina, founder of the student team, said: "Now we only control our mobile phone with our fingertips. Imagine being able to use other parts of your body to take in information more easily, for example through vibrations on your skin. The possibilities are endless." Turchina said she took inspiration from popular films in which superheroes possess superhuman abilities.

The possibilities are endless, she said, because the brain itself does not hear, see or feel anything, it merely receives electrochemical signals. "When someone learns a new language, it doesn't matter where the signals come from," she said. "They can be signals from your ears or eyes, but also these vibrations. That doesn't matter to the brain and therefore ensures that people can learn a language by feeling."

The unveiling of the smart sleeve will take place on Friday 26 November in the TU/e Auditorium on the campus, from 12:30 to 13:30 CET. An online livestream will be available to anyone who registers their interest.

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