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January 15, 2003

Device lets fingers do the talking

From: News Interactive, Australia - 15 Jan 2003

By Jim Buckell
January 15, 2003

A GLOVE that operates on wireless technology to allow communication across the globe between deaf-blind people has been invented by an Australian design engineer.

Swinburne University graduate Peter Hvala came up with the idea after seeing a television documentary on the difficulties of communication between people who are deaf and blind.

The Tacticom Alpha glove stores the information conveyed by deaf-blind people, who use a method of palm communication called deafblind fingerspelling to spell out words. It is then transmitted in much the same way as a mobile phone text message.

"In the documentary the woman described how when she lets go of the hand of the person she is communicating with, they could be 1000 miles away," Mr Hvala said.

"It made sense that if they need people to be around all the time to communicate, there was a need for a device to emulate that second person.

"It's a basic data exchange and could be used like we use SMS messages at the moment."

Deaf-blind people use a wide variety of communication techniques. Those with some vision are often able to access email, while others use Braille keypads, but these are complex and many deaf-blind people rely on tactile communication.

Fantastic plastic gloves lend a healing hand
BIONIC man – or more accurately polymer person – has arrived. Using recently discovered plastics that store and conduct electricity, a team from Wollongong University and Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital has built a glove that stimulates muscle movement. The new technology has been woven into the glove for use by patients with hand injuries or arthritis.

The research will move eventually to develop artificial muscles for use within the body.

Director of the team, Dr Tim Scott from Royal North Shore's Quadriplegic Hand Research Unit, said the glove was for use by patients after hand surgery, spinal cord injury, arthritis, burns and stroke. "It's designed to help patients keep the hand moving, especially for people who've had damage," Dr Scott said. "While the healing process is occurring sometimes you can get tendon adhesion where scar tissue causes the tendon to adhere to the tendon sheath, preventing the fingers from moving.

"This sort of device can move the hand in a therapeutic way to maximise the condition of the joints as they heal."

The "intelligent" polymers, whose discovery more than 20 years ago earned a Nobel prize for chemists Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa, are stimulated by an electric current. A single-joint prototype of the glove is in use and a full-hand unit is in development. The team, including a hand surgeon, a physiotherapist and engineers, is seeking further development funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, and there is already commercial interest in the project.

"I'm hoping that if we are successful with the NHMRC grant within one year we will be in a position to look for a manufacturer," Dr Scott said.

He hoped the technology would be available within a few years.

Director of Wollongong's Intelligent Polymer Research Institute, Gordon Wallace, said the technology had wide potential applications. The polymers are being used in conjunction with fabric, liquids and metals.

"Most polymers are inert and very good insulators, but the structure of these materials is such that they can conduct electricity," Professor Wallace said.

"They have unique properties. When you inject a small amount of charge they can expand or contract quite dramatically, and that's the basis of the artificial muscle application.

"They're lightweight so you can get results using very small currents."

Other potential uses include energy conversion and storage, batteries and capacitors. When constructed as a fibre the polymers can be woven into clothing for electronic textiles that generate electricity. Already US defence companies are funding research to develop computers and other tools that can be powered from solar batteries charged as the wearer walks in the sun.

Australian-based company BHP Billiton is funding research on their use in corrosion protection in metals.

Jim Buckell

The Australian

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