Life Care Plan, Technology

Assistive Technology for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing in 2018

 November 14, 2018

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

You have been challenged to give an example of assistive technology for the deaf and hard of hearing, other than hearing aids. How did you do? If you thought of one or two, congratulations. Fortunately, the tech community continues to improve accessibility for the disabled, year after year. In 2018, the list of assistive devices soon to be available for the deaf and hard of hearing alone is pretty impressive.

What is Project Aslan?

The last time you probably saw a sign language interpreter was on television, in front of a large crowd of people. Other than these professionals, who else do you think is fluent in this form of communication, other than parents or siblings of the hearing impaired? Researchers at Belgium’s University of Antwerp have spent the last several years working on a 3-D printed robotic arm called Aslan that is capable of recognizing spoken and written words via web cam, then translating them into sign language gestures.

More than a web cam.

As impressive as Aslan sounds, it is only able to translate words using “fingerspelling”, a mode of sign language which spells out words letter-by-letter with single hand gestures. For a full conversation to take place, you need more. A Dallas-based startup called KinTrans has developed a 3D camera with an accompanying microphone that can turn sign language into voice or text and voice into text or sign language, in real-time. It can already recognize thousands of signed words with astounding accuracy, in multiple languages.

Try on these gloves.

These are still in the research phase but they are too cool to leave out. Researchers at the University of California have developed low-cost smart gloves that can automatically translate American Sign Language (ASL) into digital text which appears on a corresponding computer or smartphone. Through variations in electrical resistance, the gloves can recognize letters in the ASL alphabet as the wearer signs them out.

Improving speech-to-text technology.

Speech recognition may not sound as new and exciting. That does not mean there is no room for improvement. In group situations, where multiple people are speaking, speech-to-text technology has not always proven effective. Thanks to a new Indiegogo campaign called SpeakSee, that is no longer the case. SpeakSee uses individual clip-on microphones and beamforming technology to isolate specific people’s speech and filter out any background noise. Each speaker is highlighted by his or her own color after the entire conversation has been transformed into a script-like transcript. These can then be read on an accompanying tablet or smartphone.

Did you say ‘brainwave-reading’?

Let us welcome you to the future, if you don’t feel as if you’ve arrived there already. That is how we felt when we read about this new ‘cognitive hearing aid’ being developed by researchers from Columbia University of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Anyone who wears one of these in a crowded room will be able to use the device to work out any sound they focus on and magnify it, while quieting down everything else. That’s right, this hearing aid will monitor brain activity and figure out which speaker’s voice the listener is concentrating on, using a deep neural network. This wonder has yet to arrive on the market, but you can learn more about it here.

The device works by monitoring the brain activity of users, and then using a deep neural network to figure out which speaker’s voice the listener is concentrating on. Right now, it’s still a research project, but this could be transformative if and when it eventually arrives on the market.

Hearing through Solar Ears…and your skin?

Of the 400 million people worldwide with a hearing loss-related disability, more than half live in countries with lower levels of income than places like the United States. The cost of hearing aids and their batteries can be too much for so many. The answer may be a solar-powered hearing aid, called Solar Ear. Its batteries last 2-3 years, compared to the 7-10 days of a common battery.

A solar-powered hearing aid is impressive but what if we told you that you could hear through your skin? A few years ago, a Kickstarter campaign was started by Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. His goal is to develop a commercial product called VEST, a device which collects incoming audio via the users’ smartphone and then translates this into specific vibrations the wearer can feel on their skin. The idea is similar to braille. Much like a blind person can learn to read those bumps, a deaf person could learn to process the vibrations as information.


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  1. It's great that you talked about how technology's improving to help people with fewer accessibility opportunities. In my opinion, it's amazing how technology's changing every day. I believe we need to step up and keep spreading the word about assistive devices to help other people's lives improve. Thanks for the information on technology for people with hearing problems.

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