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A helping hand for the deaf and blind

ABB Automation Technologies : 05 March, 2007  (Company News)
ABB technology has helped Italian students develop a unique, hand-shaped keyboard that lets deaf and blind people send electronic messages that can be read on a computer display. Within a year, the keyboard will be equipped to accept and display return messages as well.
Designed by ABB Sace in collaboration with students of Cesare Pesenti technical-professional high school in Bergamo, Italy, the hand shaped pad is equipped with special sensors and software to serve as a keyboard.

A person with severe sensory deficits like blindness can place a hand on the keyboard and use a familiar style of blind/deaf communication known as the Malossi alphabet, a hand-to-hand method in which people press and pinch specific areas of the fingers and palm corresponding to letters, as shown in the diagram below.

The new technology converts their pinching and pressing motions into electronic impulses that can be relayed to a monitor and read by a sighted person.

True 'digital' communication
With Malossi, different parts of a person’s hand correspond to different letters. By gently touching (black letters) and pinching (blue letters) in these areas, the hand becomes a kind of typewriter for the person sending the message.
The electronic Malossi keyboard (left) has pressure points which correspond to the letters of the Malossi hand alphabet (right), a touch spelling system in which different parts of the hand correspond to the letters of the alphabet..

In the upcoming school year, the project swings into its final phase, in which the electronic hand pad will be designed to actually pinch and touch the fingers and palm of a deaf-blind user in order to relay a Malossi message that comes in digitally, by computer Email for example.

The method will allow communication with the deaf and blind over a distance and in a style with which many are already comfortable.

R&D for the community
The development is part of an ongoing ABB programme to involve local students in the business of research and development.

Last year, researchers with ABB Sace and students from a local school voted on a pet project and then nominated a half-dozen young people to help see it through over a period of several weeks.

The original idea for the Malossi tool came from Ezio Manzoni, an electronics engineer with ABB Sace who has been making a second career of charity work since 1982. In this case he and colleague Alberto Sannino, also an electronics engineer, turned to a nonprofit organization devoted to people with multisensory deficits.

A doctor working with the organization, known as Lega del Filo d’Oro, alerted them to a problem facing the deaf and blind, who often rely on Malossi but need to communicate with others who do not know it. Manzoni pitched this idea to the students, who voted on several proposals and chose his.

ABB Sace taught a week-long course at the school on how to research and develop a prototype like this one. Six students authored product specifications and other design documents. “They spent weeks at ABB and, in 240 hours, they designed this project with us,” said Sannino.

Since human hands are unique in finger length and general size, Sannino envisions several prototypes to cover the majority of users.

“The software could be adapted to manage different languages and help more people,” he added. “It was a fantastic thing, a great experience for us because we get to interact with the students. They learn from us, and we learn from them.”

Manzoni hopes that everyone involved in the project gained a better understanding of the difficulties faced by deaf and blind people.

“I am really grateful that ABB allows me to devote some work hours to social causes,” he said.

“The collaboration with schools and stakeholders, along with its technical, business and social benefits, is a mission for ABB Italy and for me. We believe that our contribution can really improve welfare for business and society as well.”

And the annual collaboration helps to teach young people about a scientific and business approach to invention, which is, after all, ABB’s bread and butter, he added.
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