This Glove Could Help Deaf-Blind People Communicate With Anyone, Anywhere

And the research behind it could change how we all interact with computers and with each other.
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Michael Scaturro

On the hottest day of the summer so far in Berlin, Tom Bieling, a 32-year-old doctoral candidate, walked quickly down a corridor on the second floor of a science building mere blocks away from a roundabout that was clogged with police vans.

The police vans -- rectangular Volkswagens in alternating shades of blue and green, the official colors of authority in the German capital -- circled around Ernst Reuter Platz and headed three miles eastward towards Brandenburg Gate, which was where President Obama delivered a speech an hour later under the blazing, 90-degree sun.

Ten minutes before his arrival, Bieling had sent a text message apologizing for running late. His bus had slowed to a crawl that Wednesday afternoon. The president had snarled traffic. Bieling wrote:

"Worst bus in town. Keeps me waiting at Turmstraße. Sorry :-)"

He tapped this text message with his fingers, into an iPhone, that delivered the message to another iPhone. It's very easy to write this sort of message on a bus arriving late -- that is, if your digits are whole and your eyes are functional.

If Bieling were deaf-blind, however, he could not have communicated so easily or quickly.

Precisely for this reason, he has set about developing a new way for the deaf-blind to communicate with the world beyond their fingertips. His innovation takes the form of a computerized glove that translates text into impulses. But his research has a secondary purpose as well. Everything that he has learned about helping the deaf-blind communicate more efficiently could be applied to a new world of tactile communication that could change how we interact.

While not the first device allowing the deaf-blind to text, Bieling's glove appears to be the most innovative. It is made of stretchy, black GoreTex, covered with wires, adorned with sensors - his fourth prototype in two years.

After removing the glove from a case, he set himself atop a ledge abutting a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. On the other side of the glass sat his colleagues, typing away on silver computers in a mostly white open space resembling an architect's office. On his side of the glass one could see black ink drawings and thought bubbles explaining how the glove works.

Bieling wore a blue-checkered shirt over a white tank top, and tan shorts -- a modern version of a researcher's summer attire if there were any. Many years ago, before coming to the Design Research Lab at Berlin's University of the Arts in 2008, the Cologne native organized electronic dance parties and studied product design.

At some point during his undergraduate studies, however, he began to feel that too often design focuses solely on people who possess all their senses, often forgetting the disabled. Bieling said that his research goal shifted "to learning as an interactive designer from blind, deaf, and deaf-blind people."

Glove on snugly, Bieling next snapped into place on his forearm a small plastic box containing a Bluetooth transmitter, which pairs the glove to a mobile phone that then sends or receives messages.

The glove's palm area is dappled with circular, gray pressure sensors that look like miniature felt furniture pads. The dorsal side features red and blue wires connected to silvery motors that run up and down the GoreTex like the veins on your hand.

The language of Bieling's glove is the Lorm alphabet, invented in 1881 by Austrian Hieronymus Lorm after he lost his hearing and later his sight.

Lorm's alphabet places letters on various parts of the hand. Vowels emanate from the fingertips - the thumb's tip is an A, an index finder's end an E. A circle in the palm spells S. And so on.

Since every letter in the Lorm alphabet is represented by a tap or a sweeping motion on some part of the hand, the system lends itself to Bieling's device.

When a deaf-blind person wearing the glove receives a text, motors -- the same kinds that make your cell phone vibrate -- translate words into vibrations spelling out the Lorm alphabet's letters on the dorsal side of the hand. When a deaf-blind person wants to send a message, he need only tap letters onto glove's palm side. The glove then translates the haptic information into digital text, connects through Bluetooth to an iPhone app, and sends the message as a text or an email.

Bieling theorized that mirroring the palm-based Lorm system on the top of the hand could serve as a way for the glove to receive messages. And it worked: The deaf-blind people in his study reported that they could understand incoming Lorm vibrations on the tops of their hands just as well as they could when someone tapped out letters in their palms.

"It turns out, it was irrelevant to the brain whether the top or the bottom of the hand was receiving vibrations," Bieling noted.

For decades, deaf-blind people in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands have used Lorm to communicate with each other, their doctors, and their families. Bieling said the system is relatively easy to learn, even for English speakers. And with his glove, a deaf-blind Lorm user should be able to communicate with any literate person, anywhere in the world, not just those able to decipher Lorm.

"Up to now, if a deaf blind person wanted to talk to you, you'd have to know the Lorm Alphabet -- and not so many people do," Bieling said. "Another barrier is that this system -- and other deaf-blind languages -- doesn't work over distance. If you're in another room, in another city, and you're deaf-blind, you can't easily talk with Lorm."

As his interaction studies with the deaf and blind got underway three years ago, Bieling said he became increasingly fascinated by "the smart and positive aspects" of their communication. His idea for the Lorm glove came when he followed a conversation that two blind people in his research group conducted across a loud room.

"If you or I were divided by a street, noise, or windows," he said, "We would not be able to talk anymore. But two deaf people would still be able to do so - the only thing they need is eye contact, and they can still communicate. I thought that was cool."

He continued his work observing the intuitive communication methods of blind, deaf, and deaf-blind people, and learned the Lorm alphabet himself -- something that he said takes only a few hours to do, and is much less complex than sign language.

As his work with the deaf-blind deepened, he came to feel that the word disability is, at best, an inappropriate label for a poorly designed world.

"The way we understand disability and the way we define it is often very much related to the way we design our world," Bieling said. "Stairs or ramps, for example, define whether a wheelchair-bound person considers himself disabled or not."

The glove that he shows visitors to his lab is the project's proof of concept, and one of three other projects that he is presenting as part of his thesis on how design could be used to reduce the stigma of disability. Future gloves will be made of a material less dense than GoreTex, and feature smaller sensors and invisible cables. Bieling's goal is to develop a glove so thin and so lightweight that not just the deaf-blind, but all of us will want to wear it.

"I want people to be able to grab things, hold things in their hand while wearing the glove. That's what we're working on for the next prototypes," he said.

Bieling envisions a world not too far in the future where tactile sensors are embedded in our clothes, too.

His goal is to enable quick, silent communication in situations where computer keyboards and monitors are suboptimal.

"Why not bring the information to the hand, to the glove - or to belts or jackets or other clothes?" he asked.

The glove's wearer wouldn't need to learn the whole Lorm alphabet, Bieling said, but rather just a series of shortcuts or hand motions relevant to his or her work.

An assembly line worker, for example, could order new materials with a tap of his belt. A stage director in an opera house could open the curtain or dim the lights with simple motions on the glove.

For, as Bieling correctly notes, tactile information isn't something most of us are using in our lives right now. But he hopes to see tactile interaction become a widely adopted tool in industry and in our personal lives over the next five years.

"After all," he noted, "There are many situations where even people who aren't deaf or blind still have problems communicating."

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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