Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wearable Captioning Device: a 6th grade project turned real

In 6th grade we had an assignment to invent something. It didn't need to actually be feasible, as evidenced by the hordes of colored-pencil time travellers and teleporters that resulted. I was a practical child, so I turned in a paper on "Automatic Closed Captioning Glasses," a pair of lens with computer screens in them. At each temple was a box labeled "very small computer" ("microprocessor" was not yet in my vocabulary). One box had a directional microphone and speech recognition software; the other side was "the part of the TV antenna that picks up the closed captioning." As you walked, talked, or vegged in front of the tube, the glasses would display captions at the bottom of each lens, with the optics working out so that you'd see the display as floating a couple feet in front of your face. In my paper, I pointed out that all these parts existed already, so what needed to happen was to wait for the technology to get better, and then find a grown-up to put it together. As an 11-year-old who'd never heard of electrical engineering before, that was as far as I could go at the time.

Nine years later, I found out that the technology had gotten better, and a grown-up - Leanne West of Georgia Tech - was building something called the Wearable Captioning Device, which "...is a device that provides text captions to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. The device gets text from a transmitter... the display can be clipped to glasses..." In short, it's the gadget I dreamed of in 6th grade, albeit minus the nauseating orange/lime-green/purple striped frames drawn in Crayola marker. It's hard to describe the simultaneous rush of deja-vu and joy I felt when I read about this - it's not every day you find out a researcher (1) had the same idea you had when you were a kid, (2) thought it was a good one, and (3) built it.

I hope they get this thing off the ground (I want one). It seems like the project's about 4 years old and has working prototypes, but there are no hints of commercial production yet. I'm working up the nerve to email the project director asking about it - trying to come up with an alternative opening line to "Hi! I'm a hearing-impaired electrical engineering student who wrote about your project for my 6th grade assignment, 5 years before you started developing it - what's up?" (Suggestions for opening lines welcome.)

On a more lighthearted note, I'm watching my aunt (a kindergarten teacher in a Quaker school) write her introductory letter, which includes the line "please disarm toys before bringing them to school." I'm imagining 5-year-olds coming in clutching G.I. Joe figures with little daisies stuffed in the barrels of their plastic rifles.


Katie Rivard said...

Be alert to the possibility that this guy might interpret your message as, "Hi, I wrote a paper on your idea in 6th grade. Can I get in on the patent?", which is probably not what you mean. Just make sure you're clear on whatever it is you're actually looking for by contacting them.

Otherwise, that is so cool. I wish someone would make the gadget *I* invented in elementary school. (It's probably illegal though. A remote control for the voice volume of your younger sister probably violates some personal right or other)

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