Student research team improves communication for the blind

 Nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and hand gestures, are an integral part of communication. Yet, for a visually-impaired person, these nonverbal cues are unreadable, which handicaps social interaction capabilities. But what if there was a device that could fix that problem?

A team of University of Maryland students are creating exactly that. Team FACE (Facial Analysis for Communicating Expression), part of the four-year honors program Gemstone, have created a prototype that converts nonverbal messages into audio and tactile feedback. Using facial recognition and expression analysis, the device can relay the names of frequent communication partners as well as their facial expressions, which are organized within the six universal expressions: happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, and anger.

Melissa Nathanson, a member of the team, describes how the team conducted their research: “We have their white cane, and we mounted a camera on the top of it, while the camera is running facial recognition and expression recognition computer code.” The team also conducted surveys with both sighted and visually impaired people. After researching and interviewing, the team successfully created a working prototype.

Assistive technologies such as screen reading software, reading devices, and specialized appliances have made daily life a lot easier for the visually impaired. Yet, Team FACE is the first to develop a device that specifically targets the way blind people communicate with sighted partners, which is a vital aspect of daily life that has gone unaddressed until now.

This device is an invaluable contribution to the field of communication because it opens up a world of opportunities for the visually impaired. By giving them the capability to interpret nonverbal cues, blind people can develop the same skill in communication that sighted people naturally possess.

Although there are some kinks that Team FACE still needs to work out, the device is functioning fairly well and will hopefully become commonly used in the future.

In the field of communication, it is necessary to be able to accurately interpret nonverbal behavior and respond appropriately. Until now, the blind community had no way of doing so. The creation of this device allows visually impaired users to become more skilled in communicating – which will not only improve day-to-day interactions but give blind people more opportunities to  pursue careers in law, public relations, management, politics, advertising, and many other fields.

Although the device could not be videotaped, Team FACE will present their device at the spring 2012 Team Thesis Conference.


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