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IIT Madras Researchers enhance wearable assistive devices with latest technologies to empower people with hearing & motor impairments

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Funded by Sony Pictures Networks India through its CSR initiative, ‘Vibe’ will generate vibration & LED light inputs for pre-identified sounds like Doorbell while ‘iGest’ will recognize gestures & provide audio output through a smartphone, helping people with cerebral palsy to communicate

Indian Institute of Technology Madras researchers are enhancing already-developed wearable devices with latest technologies that will assist people with hearing impairment and motor disabilities to communicate independently and enhance their quality of life. These wearable sensors will include latest sensor technologies used in the Internet of Things.

Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) is supporting these projects at IIT Madras through its CSR initiatives. The devices are being developed by the Centre for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology (CREATE), a multidisciplinary translational research and educational initiative of IIT Madras. It was conceived as the researchers began interacting with NGOs and inclusive schools.

CREATE sets out to meet the major social need for indigenous development of low-cost technologies that address the needs of people with different abilities in India.
Highlighting the need for indigenous development of assistive devices, Prof. Anil Prabhakar, Head, CREATE-IIT Madras, and Faculty, Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras, said, “Due to the non-availability of affordable and sustainable assistive devices and systems, the hearing-impaired are excluded from the mainstream and inclusive education. Also, the imported devices cannot be afforded by most people.”

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Further, Prof. Anil Prabhakar said, “The cost of the product is kept low and to be less than 5000/- Indian rupees so that it is an affordable device for its basic functionality. The advance of technology and the advent and availability of low-cost microcontrollers and sensors allows us to come up with this unique low-cost device.”

The two major projects being developed by CREATE are ‘Vibe’ and iGest’ for the hearing impaired and for persons with motor disabilities, respectively. Both devices are embedded systems that will bring the latest developments from IoT and ML to wearable assistive devices. Such wearable devices will have rechargeable batteries and communicate with a mobile phone over Bluetooth.

Elaborating on the impact envisaged from these CSR projects, Mr. Rajkumar Bidawatka, Company Secretary, Compliance Officer and Head CSR, Sony Pictures Networks India, said, “Inclusivity is an essential aspect of the culture at Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI). We are proud to extend our support to IIT Madras for this project, which is an effort to ensure that the needs of differently-abled communities are addressed in the most convenient, affordable and accessible manner. At SPNI, our aim is to support initiatives that result in a tangible impact to communities who benefit the most from such innovations.”

Vibe is a wearable device that vibrates for acoustic sounds around a person with hearing impairment. Vibe features a multitude of sound patterns that are recognized using a microphone and voice recognition modules. Vibe will alert the hearing impaired about a specific sound such as a doorbell, alarm, or a crying child. It will be compact and wearable as a watch. It is a simple way of providing vibration input for the pre-identified surrounding sounds, with each such sound corresponding to a specific vibration and blinking LEDs to alert the user.

iGest will function as an alternative and augmentative communication device for persons with cerebral palsy. It will recognize the gestures of those with limited motor skills and convert them into audio output through a smartphone. It aims to address issues of speech impairment and motor impairments faced by persons with cerebral palsy.

iGest, which borrows on commercially available fitness sensors, will be designed using an inertial motion unit. For persons with cerebral palsy, movements can be much slower than normal people and also less repetitive. Hence, iGest will be designed around available Edge ML microcontrollers that provide machine learning (ML) capabilities to IoT devices.

As per the last census, 20 percent of the Indian population suffered from a motor disability. Such individuals will frequently go in for occupational therapy. In addition, there are those who require physiotherapy only on occasion (due to a strained muscle, or bad posture). iGest will cater to a large number of such individual cases.

In the case of persons with cerebral palsy, limited motor control also manifests itself as a speech impairment and an inability to communicate independently. The overall incidence of cerebral palsy at birth is about 0.3 percent, but they account for 15-20 percent of children with a physical disability.

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