Facebook says it’s working to let you ‘hear with your skin’

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Facebook’s advanced hardware group is working on technology to let you “hear with your skin.” The technology could be used to help deaf people communicate, but Facebook also envisions it as a way to advance communications for people who can already hear, allowing for such things as a conversation to be automatically translated into another language.

The technology is being developed by Facebook’s Building 8 research group, led by ex-DARPA director and former head of Google’s experimental research group Regina Dugan.

Dugan compared the technology to the cochlea in your ear, which translates sound into information readable by your brain. Facebook says it’s possible to reproduce the cochlea’s functions with hardware and then transmit that information to the brain by delivering it through a person’s skin.

Facebook was a little vague about the specifics of how it’ll work. It sounds like the technology won’t quite enable someone to “hear” a word, but to feel a vibration associated with it, which they can over time learn to understand.

The idea isn’t as out there as it sounds. Researchers have been trying to use the skin to transmit language for decades — though with limited degrees of success.

Dugan said that Facebook had already developed a basic system that could let a person feel vibrations corresponding to a handful of different words. She presented a video showing a Facebook employee who was able to differentiate between three shapes, colors, and actions, and even understand them when chained together.

“One day not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin and for you to feel it instantly in Spanish,” Dugan said. “Imagine the power such a capability would give to the 780 million people around the world who cannot read or write but who can surely think and feel.”

It’s not entirely clear what Facebook plans to do with this technology or how exactly when it thinks it’ll be ready. Dugan characterized it as “a few years away.”

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