A new wearable device that translates spoken words into vibrations could help deaf people perceive speech in a completely new way.

There are about 2 million functionally deaf people in the United States and 53 million worldwide. Cochlear implants can effectively restore hearing in some individuals, but they are costly, require invasive surgery, and don't work as well for deaf people over  age 12.

Scott Novich and David Eagleman, neuroscientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, are developing a device that relies on sensory substitution, which involves feeding information from one sense into another.  For example, a New York-based company called Tactile Navigation Tools is creating a vest that can transform spatial information into vibrations to aid blind people. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies]

"At the end of the day, your sensory receptors are all sending electrical signals to the brain," Novich told Live Science. "Your receptors are tuned for a specific kind of information, but there's nothing saying you actually have to send that type of information."

The new device, known as the VEST (short for versatile extra-sensory transducer), can be worn on top of clothing or underneath. A microphone on the vest captures sounds from the environment and feeds them into an Android tablet or smartphone, which extracts the audio relevant to speech and converts it into unique patterns of vibration in about two dozen tiny buzzers (similar to the ones found in a cellphone).

Novich and Eagleman tested their device on a handful of deaf and hearing volunteers. In each trial, the vest would vibrate in a pattern corresponding to a randomly chosen word, and the wearer had to guess the correct word from a set of four choices.

They compared two different algorithms for translating words into vibration. The participants performed between 300 and 600 trials once per day, either until they got more than 75 percent of the words correct, or for a 12-day period, depending on the experiment.

The researchers are still collecting data, but preliminary results suggest that both the deaf and hearing participants can learn to interpret spoken words as patterns of vibration on the skin.

After about two weeks of wearing the device, Eagleman said he expects it will become a direct sensory experience for users, in which feeling a pattern of vibration will be recognized as "hearing" a word. In the next phase of testing, people will use the device for as long as six consecutive weeks, he added.

The team has already raised more than $47,000 for the research through a Kickstarter campaign. Novich and Eagleman estimate their device, when available, will cost less than $2,000.

The research was presented here Tuesday (Nov. 18) at the 44th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

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