Chic new wearable technology helps users “hear”

What’s the difference between Batman and your average Joe? Batman doesn’t actually have any super powers—arguably, all that separates Bruce Wayne from the rest of the population are a few handy, high-end pieces of wearable technology (including a sweet cape that can make him fly). In recent years, wearable technology has surpassed science fiction into the realm of reality, with the potential to greatly improve the human experience. While science has yet to perfect capes for human flight, CU researchers are optimizing garment-based assistive technology for people with disabilities.

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Halley standing next to her creation in the Correll Robotics Lab.

Halley Profita, a graduate student in CU’s Department of Computer Science, has been working with her colleague Nicholas Farrow and advisor Nikolaus Correll of the Correll Robotics Lab to create better wearable tools for individuals with sensory deficits. They have recently designed a sleek, stealthy assistive garment aimed at helping individuals with hearing impairments interact more fully with their environments and lead more enriching lives.

The garment, called Flutter, looks like a chic, form-fitting white dress. On the front, wing-like embellishments give it a futuristic feel. To the novice observer, these embellishments serve to make a fashion statement. Halley, however, designed them to serve a greater purpose. These additional trappings, called winglets, are actually cleverly-disguised motors that vibrate in response to loud noises. The vibrations of these motors serve to alert the user to the onset and direction of any relevant sound.

Halley’s goal in creating these winglets was to incorporate functional aspects with elements of beauty and personalization. “We can leverage fashion and embellishments to create something fashionable and with purpose.”

How exactly are the motors able to respond to noises within their greater environment? The winglets of the garment are also embedded with a dispersed network of microphones that together tune into various noises within the user’s vicinity. Once this microphone system picks up a relevant sound and determines where it’s coming from, it will stimulate the appropriate motors to vibrate, or flutter (get it?), in the direction of the sound.

For instance, if you were walking down the street wearing Flutter and a melodious ice cream truck were to pass by to your left, the winglets embedded in your garment atop your left shoulder would vibrate. As a result, you would turn to your left and notice the ice cream truck. This type of technology can also be useful in more dire situations, alerting the user to fire alarms, car horns, sirens and the like. Tools like Flutter can potentially ameliorate the danger and anxiety associated with outdoor activities for individuals with hearing impairments.

According to Halley, hearing aids are the number one rejected assistive technology—they tend to point out the user’s disability, are inconsistent, and while they work well to amplify sound, they often don’t do a good job of helping users determine which direction the sound is coming from. Flutter offers a more fashionable alternative for those who are tired of traditional technologies, with the added benefit of accurately alerting users to where sounds are coming from.

The overall notion of using wearable tech to help individuals with sensory impairments is not necessarily new. The truly innovative contribution of this work comes from Flutter’s hardware implementation and unique design. In Halley’s words, “It’s innovative in that it addresses the beautification of garment-assisted tech.” The hardware dispersed throughout the garment replaces conventional, bulky systems for an inconspicuous feel.  It’s also less likely to fail—if one piece of hardware were to stop working, the other pieces would compensate. Halley and her team wanted to create a reliable piece of wearable tech that people would actually want to wear; something that “supports the technology, yet does not interfere with the ‘wearability’ of the dress.”

“You can’t stick hardware on the body and expect it to be accepted by society,” says Halley. Her hope is that Flutter will start to change that conception, and lead to more customization and self-expression in the wearable tech world.

Flutter won the “Best in show” and “Best in most inclusive and usable design” at the International Symposium on Wearable Computer’s Design exhibition in 2012. This design competition aims to foster more collaboration between wearable hardware and aesthetics, and can be described as “hardcore electrical engineering meets fashion.” In fact, this design competition was what first inspired Halley to create Flutter. It allowed her to express her creativity, which is often difficult to do in a rigorous academic setting.

Although Flutter was originally designed to help individuals with hearing impairments, it has the potential to benefit everyone. For instance, it can be helpful for those who enjoy wearing headphones while riding their bicycles. As fun as it is to rock out on your bike ride to work, the situation quickly becomes dangerous when you can’t hear that truck approaching. Assistive technology like Flutter can help you tune into the world around you, without interrupting your tunes.

The lightweight, dispersed pieces of hardware within Flutter can be made to fit inside virtually any piece of clothing. Halley and her colleagues are currently working on designing a gender-neutral vest that will serve the same purpose as Flutter. Their efforts on this project are funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Halley hopes to keep designing wearable assistive technology with the individual in mind. “We all buy things that convey our own sense of style,” says Halley. This shouldn’t be overlooked when designing wearable or assistive technology.

To learn more about Flutter, or any of Halley’s other projects (such as the phone glove—what!) check out her website: www.halleyprofita.com

By Aggie Mika

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