Gordon in the News: last updated 09/17/2009

FEATURED: Gordon Students/Professor Build Innovative Devices That Translate Sound into Sight

By Natalie Ferjulian, Communication Arts Major ‘10

July 23, 2009

WENHAM, MA--Sightings of students wearing large headphones, light proof goggles, and backpacks worn in reverse have recently been reported on the Gordon College campus. The getup was part of a research project by the Philosophical Psychology Lab, coordinated by assistant professor of philosophy Brian Glenney. (A similar lab has been run by Harvard professor Sean Kelly.)

Glenney along with psychology major Zach Reynolds ’10 and computer science and philosophy major Zachary Capalbo ’12 began the project in the spring, exploring whether sounds can substitute for sight. They’ve recently completed a four-week summer research phase of the project.

“We’re researching philosophical questions which ask what it’s like to experience the external world through our various senses,” said Glenney. “Practically, my hope has been to develop a device for the visually impaired that informs them of their surroundings via sounds.” The study mimics those done by The Center for Non-Invasive Brain Simulation at Harvard Medical School.

Glenney familiarized participants with the equipment through a tag paradigm. Two participants were placed in the black box theatre at the Barrington Center for the Arts where aside from heart shaped lights attached to their abdomens, the room was black. Their task? To locate and tag one another by relying only on sound. This happened through a series of feedback loops. The camera attached to their head registered their opponent’s light and was then converted into sound through the computer on their back and sent to their headphones. If the light was to their left, the sound would be in their left ear; if it was to their right, in the right ear; if it was above them the sound would be high-pitched; and if the sound was below them it would be low pitched.

“It takes time for subjects to get the hang of how the equipment works,” said Glenney. “We’ve found they learn twice as quickly with the tag paradigm as any other training method because it’s interactive and competitive.”

After becoming acquainted with the equipment, participants were then brought to the controlled experiment. In a 6- x 10- foot rectangular room a sole participant was given the task of shutting off three lights, each mounted on a different wall. Glenney and his students gathered data about the amount of time it took each participant to complete the task as well as the level of reliance on the device.

“It was hard to really focus on my sense of hearing without wanting to feel for the lights or move on instincts,” said project participant and chemistry major, Jordan Carr ’12. “But I found that by adjusting myself so I could hear sound equally in both ears, I’d located the longitudinal plane of the light. Locating the middle ground for pitch was a more difficult task.”

But “hearing” light was only one of the projects Glenney and his students have been working on. Capalbo has created the first device--called the KromoFone--that converts color to sound. “I wanted to build something that wasn’t so dependent on contrasting illuminations,” said Capalbo.  “My device can detect color difference enough for people to distinguish fruits and vegetables.”

Along with “sensory substitution devices,” Glenney and his students worked on problems related to shape constancy, the moon illusion and double vision.

“To see these devices being used at somewhere like the Perkins School for the Blind,” said Glenney, “well, that would be the ultimate goal.”

For more information contact Jo Kadlecek in the Office of College Communications, 987.867.4752, or .

Gordon College is a Christian college of the liberal arts and sciences on Boston’s North Shore. The College offers majors in 37 fields and has graduate programs in education and music education. Leading the way in Christian college merit, Gordon is nationally ranked for its excellence in academics and its role in character building. These achievements recognize Gordon as one of the nation’s top Christian colleges.



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