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