Lip reading is a critical means of communication for many deaf people, but it has a drawback: Certain consonants (for example, p and b) can be nearly impossible to distinguish by sight alone.
Tactile devices, which translate sound waves into vibrations that can be felt by the skin, can help overcome that obstacle by conveying nuances of speech that can’t be gleaned from lip reading.
Researchers in MIT’s Sensory Communication Group are working on a new generation of such devices, which could be an important tool for deaf people who rely on lip reading and can’t use or can’t afford cochlear implants. The cost of the device and the surgery make cochlear implants prohibitive for many people, especially in developing countries.
“Most deaf people will not have access to that technology in our lifetime,” said Ted Moallem, a graduate student working on the project. “Tactile devices can be several orders of magnitude cheaper than cochlear implants.”