Earlier this summer in a packed and freezing-cold auditorium in Doha, the all-female team of students from Qatar University burst into cheers and tears as they were pronounced winners of the country’s INJAZ Young Enterprise of the Year Competition. As the crowd gave them a standing ovation, tiny LED lights flashed and faint vibrations could be seen and felt on the wrists of a few people in the audience – the reason for the team’s success.
In just a few months, the young entrepreneurs designed, prototyped and even sold their idea called VibroHear – a sleek, colourful, and elegantly designed bracelet meant to give “a sense of security” and the “feeling” of sound to those with hearing disabilities.
“We have designed this bracelet specially to help people with hearing disabilities get independent, and enjoy life with the luxury that others do,” says Haya Al Nuaimi, the company’s executive president.
The VibroHear bracelet is a remarkably simple device. It vibrates and flashes green or red LED lights, the intensity and colour of which depend on the volume and closeness of sound. The hope is that this little bracelet will help alert deaf people to potential dangers – for example, a fire alarm or a honking car- while also enabling them to “feel” sound.
To do so, however, it will have to overcome some substantial barriers that have thwarted other efforts in the past.
Deafness is ultimately an invisible disability – you can't see it in the way that you can see someone who has lost an arm or a leg, making it what some call the “most normal” disability possible. Yet that doesn’t make life any easier for those affected.
“The major barrier [for deaf people] is trying to communicate like everyone else does, especially when dealing with strangers, or people who don’t know how to deal with individuals with hearing loss,” says Thomas Fiddian, a technology specialist for UK-based charity Action on Hearing Loss, and former industrial designer.
Because of this communication difficulty, Fiddian says, deaf people tend to rely more on technologies (like subtitles, captioning and hearing aids) on a day-to-day basis more than people with other disabilities. While these tools are essential for regular communication and interactions, some technologies have tried going a step further, promising to help deaf people “feel” or “see” sound in different ways, either for pleasure or for security – such as the service VibroHear offers.
For example, in 2010 German designer Frederik Podzuweit came up with a collar concept called the “Music For Deaf People”, which converts sound input into vibrations which supposedly stimulate the exact sound-processing regions of the brain associated with full hearing. Instead of hearing sound, wearers can in effect “feel” it through their skin.
Just last year, a team of researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, designed a pair of glasses that can help deaf people “see sound”, and, potentially, life-saving cues. The glasses have seven tiny microphones fixed to the frame, which detect the location of a sound, regular or dangerous, and relay the information to the wearer through specially positioned LED lights inside the glasses. While the current prototype requires the user to carry a small laptop to process the signals, the team hopes to miniaturise the system soon to make it more practical.
Also in South Korea, designers Kwang-seok Jeong, Min-hee Kim and Hyun-joong Kim have created Vibering – a watch coupled with two rings (one to be worn on each hand) that vibrate according to the distance and position of the sound. It was originally conceived for people who listen to music with earphones in the street very loudly, admits lead designer Kwang-seok Jeong, before they realised it could help alert deaf people to sounds coming from behind them – presenting the information on an easy-to-read display.