Google Glass Could Help The Deaf Visualize Nearby Sounds

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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) patent application that shows one possible use for Project Glass: Creating visual notifications of sound for the hard of hearing. Google Glass could be used to help the deaf by making it possible for them to see visual representations of sound, including the direction and intensity of a noise, such as an oncoming car.

The patent (via PatentBolt) will enable Google Glass to use a row of microphones located on the frame of the headband to give users pop-up notifications of sounds in the area. When the microphones detect a noise, they send a signal to the glasses, which are essentially a wearable computer, to give a visual alert of that noise, including its calculated direction and loudness.

The patent gives the example of a deaf person wearing Google Glass and crossing the street at a crosswalk. If an oncoming car honked to alert the pedestrian that it was driving toward the the crosswalk, an array of microphones in the headband would give a visual notification of where the car horn was coming from, as well as how close it suspects the car to be, based on its volume. The patent, while intended to be used by the hard of hearing, could also be used to keep those distracted by headphones or other devices from walking into a dangerous situation.

In a phone interview, Geoff Herbert said he hears “about 10 percent” of what the average person can. Herbert works as an entertainment reporter and disc jockey with profound binaural hearing loss, which means his hearing is affected in both ears.

“For most of my communication, I rely on lip-reading or speech reading," Herbert said. "The main thing I use beyond that is closed-captioning. My hearing loss isn’t so significant that I would need glasses to tell me when someone is knocking at the door or a car is crossing the street.”

Herbert, who sometimes goes by the name “DeafGeoff,” said that the Google Glass patent reminds him of a service animal, such as a guide dog, that's trained to inform a deaf person of potential threats. Herbert said he is curious to see how well the Google Glass technology will work, but he's most excited about the prospect of Google Glass transcribing live audio to text. He mentioned a feature of Google-owned video service YouTube that can automatically create captions for videos that don't have them.

“It is never accurate, but even if I can’t understand what’s being said simply by listening, I can use the text to help me figure out what’s going on,” Herbert said. “I’m hoping to see phone conversations where Google Glass could potentially take all of that audio and transcribe it.”

Herbert said that if Google Glass could transcribe live audio, he would be impressed. He compared it to closed captioning on live television. Sure, there would be a lag of a “couple seconds,” but the feature could help those who are hard of hearing to understand what is happening around them.

“It depends on how well it works, and all the features that go along with it,” he said.

The Google Glass patent was filed with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office in the second quarter of 2012, but the company does not currently ship a version of Project Glass with an array of microphones like those described, and there has been no mention of a noise notification feature since the filing. The patent implies a possible use for Google Glass that might benefit the hearing-impaired, but it's not unusual for a company to hold patents for technologies that  never go into production.

“I do think Google Glass could open up a world of possibilities for the deaf and hard of hearing,” Herbert said. “What those possibilities are remains to be seen.”

Update: Herbert has written an article about a new pair of glasses developed by Sony and the Regal Entertainment Group that projects subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. Click here to read about his experience.

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