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Conveying Sounds to Deaf People (Part I)
Ontenna, a Brand New Device that Allows Users to Feel Sounds through Their Hair

[The Power to Create the Future Vol. 1 (Part I)]

Transmitting the Unique Features of Sounds to Users through Vibrations and Light

Ontenna, a brand new interface that allows users to feel sound when clipped to their hair

"A device that allows the user to experience sounds through the strands of their hair, much like the whiskers of a cat can sense movements in the air" —the device known as "Ontenna" is attracting attention around the world for its unique concept.
This device was developed for hearing-impaired individuals. Just by clipping it to the hair, the user can feel various sounds in his or her living environment by means of vibrations and light.

Tatsuya Honda, a UI designer who has worked to develop Ontenna since his university years, described the device as follows: "Ontenna is a simple device equipped with a built-in microphone, vibrator, and LED. By converting sound pressures in the range of 30 to 90 dB into 256 levels of vibrations and light intensity, it conveys the rhythms, patterns and volume of sounds through the user's hair. The user can identify the distance from the sound source based on the strength of the vibrations. If the user wears an Ontenna on both his or her right and left sides, he or she can identify which side the sound is coming from. Also, because the device emits light, the user can share sound information with people nearby."

Honda said he was happy to hear the following comments from deaf people who had tried Ontenna: "Now, I can understand the difference between phone and e-mail notification sounds," "I noticed when the vacuum cleaner became unplugged," and "I realized a car was coming toward me."

Our Development Is Driven by Seeing Users Smile When They Feel Sounds

Tatsuya Honda, Ontenna project leader, enthusiastically discussing the secrets behind the development

Honda continued: "One girl said something that really left a big impression on me: she felt like she could hear the sound of cicadas for the first time. At school, she was taught that cicadas make a long buzzing sound, but she never knew what kind of rhythm or pattern the sound had until now. Overseas, I saw users who expressed surprise when their friends wore Ontennas. Deaf people usually communicate using sign language without using their voices; however, because an Ontenna uses light to visually show that the user's voice is reaching his or her conversation partner, they could enjoy communication using various voices. When I saw this, I felt that Ontenna would become a new communication tool."

Noticing the Inconvenience Felt by the Hearing-Impaired through a Chance Encounter with a Deaf Person

For Honda, the deciding factor to develop Ontenna was a chance encounter with a deaf person at his university's culture festival.
"I saw a deaf person who was lost on the university campus, and I showed the person around using gestures. We have been in communication since then, and I began studying sign language and have engaged in various activities with deaf people. In the course of these activities, I came to recognize the inconvenience felt by the hearing-impaired and wished I could deliver sounds to them."
Honda studied information and security at his university, where he focused his research on the theme "to expand the body's capabilities and senses." In 2012, when he was a fourth year university student, he began research and development of Ontenna.

The Strength of Vibrations, How to Wear the Device... Lots of Trial and Error

The first prototype was completed after several months of concentrated development efforts. It conveyed sound information using different levels of light. Though Honda was confident in the product he had spent time and money to develop, he received an unfavorable response from deaf people.
"Since they cannot hear with their ears, they rely on visual information in their daily lives, so they felt it was a burden to have more visual information. I was so shocked when they told me that they could not use a product like this, but at the same time, this set my developer spirit on fire. I made up my mind to develop a product that would satisfy the needs of deaf users no matter what."
After thinking hard, Honda devised the current mechanism by which sounds are transmitted through both light intensity and vibrations generated by a vibrator. However, many challenges remained, including determining the strength of vibrations and how to wear the device.
"By experiment, I found that deaf people are much more sensitive to vibrations than people with normal hearing. Vibrations that are too strong cause discomfort, but vibrations that are too weak are difficult to notice, so performing adjustment was very difficult.
I also explored where to clip the device. Wearing the device on the arms or hands proved to be cumbersome when communicating in sign language or doing household chores, and feedback suggested an aversion to attaching the device directly to the skin because of possible discomfort, irritation, and rashes. The next step was to try to have users attach Ontenna to their clothes, but the result was that it was sometimes difficult to feel the vibrations. So I worried about how to find a comfortable way to wear it."

Using Hair as an Interface--An Idea Developed with the Help of Deaf People

"This is my starting point." Honda still treasures his first hairpin design prototype.

Honda finally came to the conclusion that the device could be worn in the hair like a hairpin, where the user could easily sense the vibrations but the device would not cause skin problems such as irritation or rashes, nor would it get in the way when communicating in sign language or doing household chores. This was the ideal interface that resolved all the previous issues at once.
Honda explained: "The idea of wearing the device in the hair was found through the development process with deaf people. A deaf person said that when the wind blows, we know where the wind comes from by feeling the wind blow through our hair. When I heard this comment, I thought that if the hair is that sensitive, we may be able to use it as an interface."

A Simple, Stylish Design Everyone Wants to Use

After receiving feedback from users, the design gradually evolved into a soft, rounded form.

In 2015, while a second year postgraduate, Honda was selected as a super creator by the MITOH Program, a national project that serves as a gateway for creators. Using funding obtained through the project, he improved the sophistication of the circuit design and form of Ontenna.
Honda shared the details: "At first, it was just a simple rectangular box. After receiving feedback from users who voiced concerns about the sharpness of the angles of the device, the design was changed to a soft, rounded form and made compact. By applying an arch structure to the fullest extent permitted by the approximately 1.5-cm width of the circuit board, we increased the area for grabbing the hair to make it easy to wear and less likely to fall off. We also paid a lot of attention to the circuit board layout. For example, the vibrator is located close to the hair so that users can feel vibrations easily. The LED is located at the center of the circuit board so that it can scatter light effectively. The microphone is located away from the vibrator to avoid howling."
While continually improving Ontenna based on user feedback, Honda produced over 300 prototypes by making use of 3D printing.
"As this product is supposed to be worn every day, I strived to create a stylish design. No matter how excellent the technology is, if the product looks like it is for the disabled, the gap between the deaf and those who can hear cannot be filled. I aimed to create a simple, stylish design that everyone will want to use, regardless of their ability to hear."
After finishing graduate school, Honda continued to develop Ontenna on his own while working as a product designer at a manufacturer. In Part II of this interview, he talks about the further challenges he encountered in developing Ontenna into a commercial product, including how he came to work for Fujitsu and a new encounter he had at the TechShop manufacturing workshop.

The Power to Create the Future Vol. 1 (Part I)
Conveying Sounds to Deaf People (Part Ⅱ)

Tatsuya Honda
Design Center, Marketing Unit
Fujitsu Limited
Born in 1990 in Kagawa Prefecture. During his university days, he volunteered as a sign language interpreter, established a sign language club, and started an NPO. Under the theme "to expand the body's capabilities and senses," he carried out research and development of a new audio sensory device together with deaf people. He was selected as an MITOH super creator in 2014 and received the new face award at the 21st AMD Awards. Honda is currently working to develop Ontenna at Fujitsu Limited's Design Center.


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