Making Sense of Sensations
Professor Mounia Ziat awarded $71,500 Google grant to create tactile communication device for Deafblind students
(Above: An original HaptiComm prototype, which Professor Mounia Ziat will modify to fit a child-sized hand. Photo courtesy Vincent Hayward.)
Of all our senses, touch is perhaps the most underrated. And yet, it’s arguably the most important. It’s the first sense we develop, while still in our mothers’ wombs, and the last to submit to the ravages of time, lasting well beyond the need for bifocals and hearing aids. It’s also the only sense that can, quite literally, connect us to each other, linking us both physically and emotionally through handshakes and hugs, kisses and caresses.
These distinctions have long been apparent to Mounia Ziat, who has devoted 20 years of her professional life to “making sense of sensations.” As an expert in haptic, or touch-based, technology, the associate professor of Information Design and Corporate Communication (IDCC) focuses on perceptual learning and human-computer interaction. In July, she was awarded a $71,500 Computer Science Education Research (CS-ER) grant from Google to support her latest research: The replication of a machine-mediated tactile communication device for young members of the Deafblind community.
“Deafblind students are among the world’s most vulnerable children and the least likely to receive education,” Ziat, who primarily teaches courses in Bentley’s Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design (HFID) program, explains. That’s because, as individuals who are both visually and hearing impaired, they rely almost exclusively on physical touch with other humans to communicate.
Most Deafblind individuals use tactile signing. The technique, sometimes called “fingerspelling,” was pioneered by Deafblind author and activist Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, and requires an interpreter to “draw” on the palm of the Deafblind person’s hand. Using shapes, movement and variations in pressure, the interpreter can convey specific letters, numbers and symbols.
But as Ziat points out, many Deafblind students do not have physical access to, or the financial means to pay for, a personal interpreter. Even in well-resourced areas, connecting students with the services they need can be a challenge, she says, as “some state laws and regulations make it difficult for Deafblind individuals to identify as having more than one disability.” Thus, while the National Center on Deaf-Blindness estimates there are 10,600 Deafblind children in the U.S., “the true number is likely to be much higher.”
Ziat’s Google-funded device will provide these children — and, potentially, millions more around the world — with an alternative means of communication that’s both reliable and affordable.
Specifically, she’ll be adapting an experimental device developed by her former academic advisor, Vincent Hayward, a leading expert in haptic technology now based at the Sorbonne; Basil Duvernoy, a post-doctoral researcher now at Linköping University; and Sven Topp, an Australia-based researcher who is Deafblind. Known as HaptiComm, the appliance consists of 24 actuators, or moving parts, arrayed in the shape of a hand. These actuators convert textual and audio input into physical sensations, replicating the touch provided by an interpreter. The devices are portable, and connect easily to computers, tablets and smartphones, giving Deafblind users the ability to communicate anytime and anywhere.
Ziat will modify the existing model, which is designed for adults, to fit a child-sized hand. She’ll also design an accompanying software program that teaches Computer Science Principles (CSP). Too often, she says, “CSP content relies on visual metaphors or interactive tools that simply aren’t accessible for Deafblind students.” Both Topp, who holds a degree in Computer Science, and Hayward will serve as consultants for the project, which will be tested by Deafblind students in the Boston area.
Once she’s developed her K-12 tactile communicator, Ziat hopes to “make it universal and available to everyone.” She’ll share design specifications open source through HaptiComm.tech, an online platform created by Topp. Like the original model, the components of Ziat’s device can be fabricated with a 3-D printer and assembled at home. She estimates the cost per device will be around $200 — a fraction of the price tag for existing Deafblind communication tools, which often cost thousands of dollars. (Each of the students involved in the testing phase will be gifted her or his own device.)
Given the differences that exist among the type and severity of hearing and vision loss experienced by members of the Deafblind community, Ziat acknowledges that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, “especially since each country or region has developed their own unique method of tactile signing.” Yet she’s hopeful her tactile communicator will not only ensure access to high-quality education, but provide something far more important, if less tangible: the opportunity for Deafblind students to “gain autonomy and empowerment.”