Thad Starner, the guy who helped develop Google Glass, now brings us a wearable computer glove that uses mild electrical stimulation to “program” your mind to do a specific task – like play the piano. The programming is actually done while you go about your business doing other things, paying no direct attention to the glove and what it’s doing to your brain.
Learning new skills through vibration is called passive haptic learning (PHL). In this application, the gloves vibrate in the same finger pattern as a piano song. In Starner’s own words, as reported by the Georgia Tech News Center:
“We’ve learned that people can acquire motor skills through vibrations without devoting active attention to their hands.”
Researchers claim they have taught people with no prior musical experience how to play the piano in an hour with the Mobile Music Touch wearable computerized glove. The truth is that they are able to use multiple fingers (rather than the single-digit hunt-and-peck technique) on one hand to play the musical note sequences for very simple melodies, often without the correct rhythm.
The gloves can teach more complex songs using both hands. Presumably, this takes more than one hour. Still, this technology that links a programmable machine (computer) to the human brain/body is pretty amazing.
Starner’s associate Ph.D. student Caitlyn Seim has been busy dreaming up new uses for the teaching glove. She found out that the National Federation of the Blind estimates that only 10% of blind people can read Braille (raised dots on paper) – their special language and prime means of communication.
It usually takes four months to learn to read and type Braille (on a special typewriter designed for that purpose). Seim set herself to the task of speeding up that process. She developed a second glove for the other hand. The two-glove system teaches each letter incrementally using small vibrating motors that are stitched into the knuckles. Again, from Georgia Tech News:
“The motors vibrated in a sequence that corresponded with the typing pattern of a pre-determined phrase in Braille. Audio cues let the users know the Braille letters produced by typing that sequence. Afterward, everyone tried to type the phrase one time, without the cues or vibrations, on a keyboard.”
Just like the people who learned to play the piano, the blind test subjects went about their affairs without paying particular attention to what the gloves were doing. In fact, they were given “distraction tasks” like answering SAT college entrance exam questions while wearing the gloves.
The result? Seim herself revealed the astonishing results:
“And these people who I taught to type Braille were able to read 94 percent of the Braille alphabet in under four hours.”
Now, this is an achievement that deserves large applause for helping the sightless connect with the rest of the world. The question the two researchers next asked was: can this innovative device help patients recover from traumatic injuries – say, to the spinal cord – and return to normal lives?
A physical therapist Starner knew wondered if the computer-driven gloves could restore fine motor control to her SCI (spinal cord injury) patients’ hands? Starner explained how this might work:
“The brain will recruit more and more neurons to explain the signals that are left over and help differentiate them, and give them better sensation dexterity.”
The result? Over eight weeks, Seim said they saw remarkable gains. One man with a partial spinal cord break who could move only one finger before wearing the gloves was able to button his own buttons afterward. This ubiquitous and mundane activity requires exceptional dexterity.
Stroke victims say they don’t mind using mobility aids to get around – walkers, canes, or wheelchairs – but regaining the use of a paralyzed hand would allow them to feed and groom themselves, essential activities of daily living (ADLs).
Testing is currently underway, but already the results look very promising.
Another research team from Georgia Tech and the Shepherd Center in Atlanta headed by Dr. Tanya Markow, Ph.D. revealed:
“We were surprised by how much improvement they made in our study. For example, after using the glove, some participants were able to feel the texture of their bed sheets and clothes for the first time since their injury.”
In his role as director of the Contextual Computing Group (CCG), Starner believes:
“Mobile Music Touch…provides surprising benefits for people with weakness and sensory loss due to SCI. It’s a great example of how wearable computing can change people’s lives.”
Computerized gloves capable of teaching music and Braille in record time, of restoring sensation and dexterity to the manually disabled who previously had no hope for improvement, and with the potential for other useful future applications, are a life-changing break-through than wins over our hearts, our minds, and our souls – hands down!