A new wireless computing glove can help people learn to read and write Braille—and they don’t even have to be paying attention.
“The process is based on passive haptic learning (PHL),” says Thad Starner, professor at Georgia Tech. “We’ve learned that people can acquire motor skills through vibrations without devoting active attention to their hands.”
In a new study, Starner and PhD student Caitlyn Seim examined how well the gloves work to teach Braille.
ach study participant wore a pair of gloves with tiny vibrating motors stitched into the knuckles. 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. Afterwards, everyone tried to type the phrase one time, without the cues or vibrations, on a keyboard.
The sequences were then repeated during a distraction task.
Participants played a game for 30 minutes and were told to ignore the gloves. Half of the participants felt repeated vibrations and heard the cues, while the others only heard the audio cues. When the game was over, participants tried to type the phrase without wearing the gloves.
“Those in the control group did about the same on their second attempt (as they did in their pre-study baseline test),” Starner says. “But participants who felt the vibrations during the game were a third more accurate. Some were even perfect.”
Starner had previously created a technology-enhanced glove that can teach beginners how to play piano melodies in 45 minutes. He and Steim expected to see a wide disparity between the two groups based on the results of the piano glove study. But they were surprised the passive learners in the Braille study picked up an additional skill.
FROM TYPING BRAILLE TO READING IT
“Remarkably, we found that people could transfer knowledge learned from typing Braille to reading Braille,” Seim says. “After the typing test, passive learners were able to read and recognize more than 70 percent of the phrase’s letters.”
No one in the study had previously typed on a Braille keyboard or knew the language. The study also didn’t include screens or visual feedback, so participants never saw what they typed. They had no indication of their accuracy throughout the study. “The only learning they received was guided by the haptic interface,” Seim says.
Seim is currently in the middle of a second study that uses PHL to teach the full Braille alphabet during four sessions. Of the eight participants so far, 75 percent of those receiving PHL reached perfect typing performance. None of the control group had zero typing errors. PHL participants have also been able to recognize and read more than 90 percent of all the letters in the alphabet after only four hours.
Nearly 40 million people worldwide are blind. However, because Braille instruction is widely neglected in schools, only 10 percent of those who are blind learn the language. Braille is also difficult to learn later in life, when diabetics, wounded veterans, or older people are prone to lose their sight.
The Braille studies will be presented in Seattle this September at the 18th International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC).
The National Science Foundation provided partial support for the study. Any conclusions expressed are those of the principal investigator and may not necessarily represent the official views of the NSF.