Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a glove that helps users learn to read and write Braille, all while focusing on unrelated activities. The wearable computer uses miniature vibrating motors sewn into the knuckles, and was found to assist in developing motor skills in participants without them focusing on the movement of their hands.

The vibrating glove is an evolution of the Piano Touch glove-based music learning system that was developed by Georgia Tech researchers in 2012 and eventually became the Mobile Music Touch glove. That glove delivers vibrations to different fingers, corresponding to different keys on a piano and is claimed to be able to teach beginners how to play melodies in 45 minutes. In testing the MMT, the researchers also observed improved sensation and movement in the hands of people with paralyzing spinal cord injury (SCI), indicating the potential for it to passively aid in rehabilitation for those suffering such ailments.

Now the technology has been turned to the task of teaching people Braille. According to the researchers, only 10 percent of the 40 million blind persons around the world learn Braille. They say this is largely due to the language being neglected in schools, and also the difficulties posed by learning in later life, when diabetes and age can contribute to a loss of sight.

Participants of the latest study were given a pair of the vibrating gloves, with the motors then delivering pulses that represented the typing sequence of a phrase in Braille. Audio cues then informed the wearer of the Braille letters created when a particular sequence is typed. The participants then tried to type the phrase one time on a keyboard, without the cues or vibrations.

"The process is based on passive haptic learning (PHL),” says Thad Starner, College of Computing Professor at Georgia Tech and technical lead/manager on Google's Project Glass. "We’ve learned that people can acquire motor skills through vibrations without devoting active attention to their hands."

To investigate the passive learning capabilities of the glove, the researchers repeated the process during a so-called distraction task. Participants were given a game to play for 30 minutes and told to ignore the gloves. Half received both vibrations and audio cues, while the other half heard audio cues only. Once the game was finished, the participants were then asked to type the phrase without wearing the gloves.

"Those in the control group (audio cues only) did about the same on their second attempt (as they did in their pre-study baseline test),” said Starner. "But participants who felt the vibrations during the game were a third more accurate. Some were even perfect."

In addition to the participants being able to reproduce the phrase in Braille, they could recognize more than 70 percent of its characters, indicating that further to typing, the device could also assist in the reading of the language.

"Remarkably, we found that people could transfer knowledge learned from typing Braille to reading Braille," said Ph.D. student Caitlyn Seim, who conducted the study with Starner. "After the typing test, passive learners were able to read and recognize more than 70 percent of the phrase’s letters."

The researchers are now in the middle of a second study aiming to use PHL to teach the entire Braille alphabet to participants across four sessions with the glove. Eight participants have been involved so far, with the researchers saying 75 percent of those receiving PHL were able to achieve perfect typing performance, while all those in the control group had at least some typing errors. Those receiving PHL were also able to recognize and read more than 90 percent of the letters in the alphabet after just four hours.

The team will present its studies at the 18th International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) in Seattle on September 18th.

Source: Georgia Tech