New sensory vest could give deaf individuals ability to understand sound

Sebastian Herrera

A graduate researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine has developed a sensory device that gives deaf individuals the ability to communicate sound to their brains.

The device, called a Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), is a sensory vest that collects sounds from a mobile app and transforms them into vibrations on the shoulders and back, giving deaf people the ability to connect those signals to spoken words.

Scott Novich, electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. student at Rice University, conducted the research for the VEST under Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman. Novich discussed the invention via Google Hangout at a National Student Speech Language and Hearing Association Texas Chapter meeting.

The VEST, which is still in scientific production, could become a practical option for the deaf if it reaches commercial use, according to Novich.

“We have run simple experiments with both hearing and deaf participants,” Novich said. “As they use [the VEST] more, they get feedback and know whether they are right or wrong and start to memorize patterns. People are able to identify words they have never encountered before.”

Novich and Eagleman’s invention could potentially alter the way speech development is taught on campuses such as UT, association co-President Lindsey Foo said.

“As speech pathologists, we help people gain communication,” Foo said. “The VEST … could change the playing field in our profession”

Foo said the VEST is a less invasive solution to deafness than procedures such as cochlear implants, which are electronic medical devices that replace the function of the damaged inner ear but require surgery.

The research team raised more than $47,000 in August for VEST research, according to Novich.

The VEST could get mixed reviews in cities such as Austin, which has a large deaf population, if it ever becomes widely available, according to speech pathology senior Robyn Ward.

“It would be controversial here at UT and Austin because we have a big Deaf education community and sign language community,” Ward said. “Just like Spanish and any other language, sign language has a culture around it. So, if the VEST gets really big, it could have the potential to impact a whole cultural group.”