Today, many blind people use their fingers to read. Tomorrow, deaf people may do the same to hear. That's because Australian scientists, led by Robert Cowen at the University of Melbourne, have developed a Walkman-size gadget dubbed the Tickle Talker.
Its microphone listens to speech, and a digital-signal processing chip sorts out sounds, particularly those that are hard to distinguish by lip-reading. Each sound triggers an electrical signal that is sent to a specific spot on ringlike bands worn on the fingers of one hand. For example, "s" and "z" sounds are felt as a tickling sensation on the outside of the little finger.
After a couple of weeks of training, one severely deaf lip-reading adult scored 100% in word- and sentence-comprehension tests, up from 60% and 75%, respectively, with just a hearing aid. Another adult, who is profoundly deaf -- a hearing aid is of no benefit -- nearly doubled his scores from levels of 30% to 50% for words, sentences, and consonant sounds.