Smart Gloves Teach People Braille, Even When They Are Distracted
June 24, 2014

Smart Gloves Teach People Braille, Even When They Are Distracted

Gerard LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers modified wearable computer gloves several years ago to teach beginners how to play piano melodies in 45 minutes. In a recent advancement in the same wearable technology, they’re helping people learn to read and write Braille.

An added surprise was that the participants didn’t even have to pay attention, they learned while doing something else.

Georgia Tech professor Thad Starner, a wearable computer pioneer, and PhD student Caitlyn Seim were the researchers in the study.

“The process is based on passive haptic learning (PHL). We’ve learned that people can acquire motor skills through vibrations without devoting active attention to their hands,” Starner explained.

The participants in the study wore gloves with tiny vibrating motors stitched into the knuckles. The sequence in which the motors operated, corresponded with a pre-determined phrase in a Braille typing pattern, adding audio cues to let the user know what letter was being produced for the typing sequence. The participants were then asked to type the phrase without the use of cues or vibrations, on the keyboard.

Afterward, the participants played a game for 30 minutes and were asked to ignore the gloves while the same sequences were repeated. In the group half felt repeated vibrations and heard the cues, while the rest only heard the cues. The participants were then asked to type the phrase without the gloves.

“Those in the control group did about the same on their second attempt (as they did in their pre-study baseline test), but participants who felt the vibrations during the game were a third more accurate. Some were even perfect,” Starner said.

The researchers were surprised by the results. “Remarkably, we found that people could transfer knowledge learned from typing Braille to reading Braille. After the typing test, passive learners were able to read and recognize more than 70 percent of the phrase’s letters,” Seim said.

None of the participants had any previous knowledge of the Braille language or using a Braille keyboard. The group didn’t have any visual feedback, monitoring screens to let them see what they were typing, or see the accuracy of what they typed throughout the entire study. “The only learning they received was guided by the haptic interface,” Seim added.

This is Seim’s second study using PHL to teach the Braille alphabet, and out of eight participants, 75 percent of those who received the PHL had perfect typing performance. Nobody in the control group had zero typing errors. The PHL group also was able to recognize and read more than 90 percent of the Braille letters after only four hours.

Almost 40 million people worldwide are blind and because Braille is not typically taught in schools, only ten percent of the blind learn the language. Diabetics, wounded veterans or aging people who are susceptible to losing their sight, can find it difficult to learn the Braille language.

The study will be presented at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers, this September in Seattle.