April 22, 2013

Sound it out

If you have a hearing impairment it might seem you could have only a limited interaction with Machina’s Midi jacket. But that could change.

To the uninitiated, the Flutter looks like an ordinary white dress, with feather-like fragments of fabric running up and down.

But these embellishments hide a secret.

“The network of microphones [listens] for sounds in the environment, they are connected with microcontrollers that talk to each other, and they kind of vote on the direction,” says Halley Profita, the University of Colorado PhD student behind the dress.

Flutter dress What lies beneath: The Flutter dress hides a network of microphones and sensors designed to help people with a hearing impairment ‘feel’ the direction of sound “And so once they decide which direction it is coming from, it gives haptic feedback [vibration] in that direction … it is more of an intuitive cue to look behind you, like someone tapping you on the shoulder.”

“We wanted to create a natural mapping as to where the sound is coming from and where you should look.”

The feeling is similar to the vibrations from a mobile phone.

Halley Profita with Flutter Halley Profita with the dress which won awards at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) in 2012 Ms Profita is fascinated with the possibilities wearable technology offers to create clothes that improve the wearers standard of living – but also look good.

“Some products [people with disabilities] don’t want to use merely because they look bad. It calls attention to their disability and nobody wants that,” she says. “We look at developing products that are both aesthetic and functional, and we try to create assistive technologies so that they won’t draw attention to one’s disability”

“Hearing aids for example are the number one form of rejected uses of technology, and there can be a very strong reaction to [cochlear implants] in the deaf community.

“I wanted to create something that used the landscape of the body as an interface to communicate things about the outside world, in a different medium.”

Flutter is still at the research stage. Ms Profita hopes to start testing it out on humans in the autumn, and future plans could include incorporating a hearing aid into the design.

“For a system like this it has to be foolproof,” she says.

“We don’t want someone to fully rely on it, then it fails at some point, and then their life is at stake.”