Conveying facial expressions to blind and visually impaired persons through a wearable vibrotactile device

Hendrik P. Buimer (Corresponding Author), Marian Bittner, Tjerk Kostelijk, Thea M. van der Geest, Abdellatif Nemri, Richard J.A. van Wezel, Yan Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
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In face-to-face social interactions, blind and visually impaired persons (VIPs) lack access to nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body posture, and gestures, which may lead to impaired interpersonal communication. In this study, a wearable sensory substitution device (SSD) consisting of a head mounted camera and a haptic belt was evaluated to determine whether vibrotactile cues around the waist could be used to convey facial expressions to users and whether such a device is desired by VIPs for use in daily living situations. Ten VIPs (mean age: 38.8, SD: 14.4) and 10 sighted persons (SPs) (mean age: 44.5, SD: 19.6) participated in the study, in which validated sets of pictures, silent videos, and videos with audio of facial expressions were presented to the participant. A control measurement was first performed to determine how accurately participants could identify facial expressions while relying on their functional senses. After a short training, participants were asked to determine facial expressions while wearing the emotion feedback system. VIPs using the device showed significant improvements in their ability to determine which facial expressions were shown. A significant increase in accuracy of 44.4% was found across all types of stimuli when comparing the scores of the control (mean±SEM: 35.0±2.5%) and supported (mean±SEM: 79.4±2.1%) phases. The greatest improvements achieved with the support of the SSD were found for silent stimuli (68.3% for pictures and 50.8% for silent videos). SPs also showed consistent, though not statistically significant, improvements while supported. Overall, our study shows that vibrotactile cues are well suited to convey facial expressions to VIPs in real-time. Participants became skilled with the device after a short training session. Further testing and development of the SSD is required to improve its accuracy and aesthetics for potential daily use.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0194737
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 27 Mar 2018


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