Twenty deaf people will field test a potentially revolutionary device this summer: computerized eyeglasses that enable the wearer to see speech.
The glasses, attached to a microprocessor that can be hung from a belt, translate sound from speech into symbols that are flashed using light-emitting devices onto one of the lenses.
Using a combination of the symbols and traditional lip-reading, the wearer can understand speech better than with lip-reading alone.
"We've tested deaf subjects" in controlled settings, said the device's co-inventor, Robert Beadles. "They showed a very large improvement in speech intelligibility."
Study to Last a Year
The 20 or so field-testers, half men and women and half children, will undergo training in the spring and then, starting in the late summer, will wear the device for a year to see how it performs in day-to-day life, Beadles said.
If it does as well as its inventors hope, the device could liberate many of the nation's 2 million deaf people. In school, they often must attend class with an interpreter, or attend special classes; out of school, many must rely on lip-reading.
Beadles, an electrical engineer with a computer science background and director of the center for biomedical engineering at Research Triangle Institute, developed the hardware for the device, dubbed the "autocuer."
The concept was developed by Orin Cornett, a physicist, specialist in communication engineering and former vice president of Gallaudet College, where most of autocuer testing has been done.
Cornett invented cued speech, from which the symbols for the autocuer were taken. In cued speech, the speaker translates words into sign language using eight hand symbols made in four locations near the mouth.
Daughter Is Deaf
Beadles and his wife had found out 15 years ago their daughter was deaf, and Beadles knew lip-reading was a difficult way to interpret speech because lip positions for many different words appear similar.
In 1971, Beadles met with Cornett, and the two have been working together ever since. They were joined by an engineering team at Research Triangle and other researchers at Gallaudet.
"Of course, we're all very excited about it because we've been working on it all this time together," Cornett said.
Recent testing of the autocuer with Gallaudet students showed there are still some bugs to work out, Cornett said in an interview. When the device was used with selected words and controlled so it would not make mistakes, the students could recognize syllables with 80% to 95% accuracy, about as well as a hearing person.
Room for Improvement
When the device was left to function on its own, its accuracy in interpreting sounds fell--meaning there is room for improvement, Cornett said.
The autocuer consists of a pair of eyeglasses containing a microphone and lenses with light-emitting devices that are perceived as a smudge on the lens until the wearer gets used to them, then they are not noticed.
The glasses are attached by thin wire to the battery-powered microprocessing unit, which weighs about a pound, Beadles said. The whole thing costs about $4,000.
The developers hope the device will be commercially available in 1987. They believe the microprocessor can be reduced to the size of a chip, to be mounted on the glasses, and that the cost can be dropped to $1,000 or $2,000.