Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way in which people can learn how to read and write Braille effortlessly through the use of computing vibrating gloves, without requiring them to pay attention. Thad Starner, Georgia Tech professor and leader of the wearable glove teacher initiative, explained that the process is based on passive haptic learning (PHL). He and his team realized that via vibrations, people can learn motor skills without devoting any attention to their hands.
The gloves have small vibrating motors in the knuckles. The motors vibrate in a sequence that corresponds with a phrase in Braille. When the user feels the vibration, they are supposed to use that finger to press its respective button on a pad that is underneath the hand. The buttons on the pad input the phrases into the computer (they were not shown what they typed). Audio cues describe to users the phrases to be typed.
Starner, along with Ph.D. student Caitlyn Seim, experimented with how well the technology teaches Braille. The participants in every experiment were required to wear the gloves and type in a sequence of phrases. Then they were stripped of their audio cues and gloves and told to type a random few of the phrases in Braille. The majority of the participants were able to successfully input the correct translations for the phrases.
Starner realized that in this case, the technology was an effective teacher, but it was not until the next phase of experimentation that he realized this teacher does not require its students to pay attention to teach them Braille. A new set of sequences were given to the subjects wearing the gloves, however, the subjects were now playing a video game to distract them for 30 minutes.
When these participants were asked to retype the random selection of phrases, they did almost as well as they had previously; a significant amount even getting perfect scores. Starner had another realization during the experiment – he found that those who learned how to effectively type Braille could transfer those skills to reading Braille. According to the study, 70 percent of the participants could recognize the individual letters in the phrases.
Nobody who participated in the study had any prior knowledge of how to read or write Braille. The subjects had no visual feedback on how accurate they were or what they typed. Considering the replacement of visuals with audio cues, observers have praised the vibrating gloves for being the most effective method for the newly blind to learn Braille, and it is simple because it can be done without paying attention.
This technology has also been tested to teach beginner piano players, where test subjects were able to play a full melody in under 45 minutes. The Georgia researchers recently tested the vibrating gloves a second time in an effort to teach the full Braille alphabet to a new group of subjects. Seventy-five percent of all people who used the PHL technology reached perfect typing performance, and 90 percent could read and write all the letters in the alphabet after four hours of testing.
By Andres Loubriel