Humans have created numerous sensory substitution systems — such as braille and sign language — which translate the language of one sense into another. But a new haptic device, created by neuroscientist David Eagleman, takes this process further than ever, by using wearable tech, transducers and a smartphone to create an altogether new sense. The VEST — Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer — is a wearable designed to help those with hearing impairments understand sound by converting the noise of the world around them into vibrations that they can physically feel on their chest and back.
Rather than limiting itself to spoken words, Eagleman’s VEST responds to all ambient noises and sounds, enabling the wearer to feel a representation of the entire soundscape around them. The wearable connects to a smartphone app which uses a microphone to pick up sounds, and sends them to the vest via Bluetooth. Then the vest — which is packed with 48 transducers and motors — converts the signals into vibrations, felt on the torso.
A prototype has been tested on a 37 year deaf man, who was able to understand the meaning of the vibrations after only five days of wearing the VEST. His brain began to unlock the code-less language as it would any unfamiliar data stream. Aside from sensory substitution, the VEST has a vast range of potential uses — from enhancing gaming to enabling humans to ‘feel’ what robots, drones or vehicles feel. Eagleman recently gave a TED talk about sensory substitution and the VEST which you can watch here. What other applications are there for this remarkable haptic technology?