Research Horizons Magazine
That's the idea behind wearable micro-display glasses, one of 14 research
projects now under way at the new Rehabilitation
Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons
The center's work involves researchers from the Georgia Institute of
Technology, the Georgia Centers
for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT) and the Shepherd
Center, an Atlanta-based catastrophic care hospital. It is primarily
funded by a $5 million, five-year federal grant awarded to GCATT last
winter by the National
Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). The grant
created one of 17 national Rehabilitation
Engineering Research Centers (RERC) - this one housed on the Georgia
"With this grant we are able to move from research to real-world
applications of technology to address the needs of people with disabilities,"
Mitchell, director of GCATT's Office
of Technology Policy and Programs, and principal investigator and
director for the RERC. "The collaborative, interdisciplinary nature
of our team generates dynamic and innovative solutions."
The RERC has two parallel goals: (1) to develop new and innovative ways
of applying mobile wireless technologies to help people with disabilities;
and (2) to promote the accessibility of new wireless devices. Although
the RERC's immediate constituency is the estimated 54 million Americans
with some form of disability, its research and development of user-friendlier
technology is intended for the good of the entire population.
"Everyone benefits if we can help cell phone manufacturers build
a product that's easier to use because it has a clearer display, a speaker
system, hands-free operation or voice-recognition capability," says
co-director of the RERC and research director of the Biomedical
Interactive Technology Center (BITC), one of five Georgia Tech research
groups involved in RERC projects.
RERC researchers are building prototypes of devices that demonstrate
new capabilities. Five of the 14 projects funded are already in development.
They include the caption-capable glasses, which work like this:
At a community venue such as a theater or lecture auditorium, spoken
words are transmitted locally to a small receiver that may be clipped
onto a person's belt or pocket. There, the radio signal is converted into
a streaming-text transcription of the audio, which appears on the special
lenses of a wearable micro-display wired to the receiver.
The device enables hearing-impaired individuals in businesses, schools
or movie theaters "to receive captioning so they can interact with
the community like everyone else," explains Leanne West, a research
scientist in the Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Electro-Optics,
Environment and Materials Laboratory. She expects to have a prototype
ready by early next year.
The captioning capability may even accommodate random personal interactions
if speech-recognition technology can be incorporated into the device.
"This is new technology in the sense of its use, but really it's
taking off-the-shelf components and making them work together," West
Meanwhile, Peifer is involved in a project to bring mobile, wireless
connectivity to the Telerehabilitation Network, an Internet-based tool
for helping Shepherd Center patients manage their disabilities at home.
The network supports remote monitoring of vital signs and lets therapists
interact with patients to render counseling and further wellness training,
detect potential problems and furnish assistance to prevent secondary
complications. In addition, the network gives patients access to individualized
health information and health-care routines.
The application of wireless technologies to mobile health management
will allow people with health conditions that might otherwise have kept
them homebound to move independently in the community, Peifer explains.
"By providing them with information on how to manage their disability,
maintain their health and help manage their own health care, people with
catastrophic disabilities can more effectively integrate back into the
community and look forward to a better quality of life," he adds.
In another project, Georgia Tech researchers in the Interactive
Media Technology Center are identifying interface issues that represent
barriers for persons with disabilities, then developing multi-modal interfaces
to test with a wireless personal digital assistant (PDA). One approach
under investigation relies on a voice-recognition system. Another experimental
interface interprets hand gestures.
Researchers at the Shepherd Center are also investigating augmentative
communication devices -- special keyboards for creating synthetic speech
-- and integrating those devices with mobile wireless technology.
Forgetfulness is a common impairment for people who have suffered a brain
injury. A "cognitive prosthesis" under development at the Shepherd
Center could make these patients' lives easier to manage by reminding
them of daily tasks to perform or provide directions if they get lost.
"They may be able to function independently at home, but they need
reminders to take medications, turn off appliances or to leave for work
-- the activities they need to perform every day," Peifer says.
One of the challenges facing researchers is how to design a user interface
that is operable and understandable by people with significant cognitive
Reminder systems such as wrist-worn timers already exist. "But with
mobile wireless technologies, you can dynamically update those reminders
and send them out to people as they move about in the community,"
RERC researchers are also addressing accessibility issues, public policy,
professional training, course design for engineering students, and industrial
outreach and education.
Accessibility issues include emerging trends in technology and development
of products useful to people with disabilities -- larger computer displays,
for instance, or different kinds of input devices. And engineers will
consult with industry regarding the commercialization and mass production
of new products.
Also, Mitchell's GCATT Office of Technology Policy and Programs is examining
public policy initiatives that affect the transition of new technology
into the marketplace. Good ideas are only useful when they are put to
work, Mitchell says.
"One of the strengths of our grant proposal, and what excited the
people at NIDRR, was that we included the policy aspect," Mitchell
says. "A lot of times awards are given, and great research and great
projects come out of them, but the results end up on somebody's shelf.
They don't always get to the people who would benefit from this new knowledge,
but more importantly, the results don't get to the change agents - legislators,
regulators and policymakers at the state and federal government levels."
To encourage industrial interaction, researchers plan to present their
findings and prototypes to industry representatives in annual roundtable
meetings and a state-of-the-technology conference.
And RERC is leading the creation of universal design courses for Georgia
Tech and other students to expose them to disabilities research. Mitchell
expects the curriculum to be popular across a range of academic majors.
"Even if you come to it at first only because you have an interest in the technology, the human side really draws you in," Mitchell says. "You're dealing with people whose lives have been totally altered by a catastrophic injury from a car accident or maybe a sports injury. You start to know these people, and you start caring about how technology can make lives better for persons with disabilities."
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TECHNICAL CONTACTS: Helena Mitchell, GCATT (404-894-0058); E-mail: (firstname.lastname@example.org) or John Peifer, Biomedical Interactive Technology Center (404-894-7028); E-mail: (email@example.com).
WRITER: Gary Goettling