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.

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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