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Open Access Developing intelligent technologies to empower human capabilities of learning

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The team has been focused on inventing a wearable device which assist the wearer to learn patterns by producing contingent feedback such as sounds, vibrations or pressures. In other words, it helps the body understand and map out physical movements through multiple modarities. In the past, support for the disabled were provided for specific needs. 'I saw this support from a different perspective where I concentrated on the absence or weakened sensory input one experiences from physical disabilities,' Hirokawa outlines. 'Being unable to see or listen doesn't mean being incapable to learn, improve or grow. We would like to expand the opportunity of every individual (regardless of having disability or not) who wishes to improve themselves.' An instance of this technology is an underwater sensor suit for assisting learning swimming. Flexible light fibre sensors on the surface of the suit will collect and evaluate body movements and acoustic information to give feedback to help an individual learn better about their bodies and body movements. To estimate the stroke phase for each limb, Hirokawa and his team adopted a machine, enabling the calculation of the inter-limb coordination. 'This was based on the spacio-temporal relationship among limbs, such as symmetricity and phase difference,' he highlights. 'The machine is capable of recognising each individual's swimming pattern by learning from the observation of human trainer.' To make this operation more productive, Hirokawa has developed a smartphone app that allows teachers to easily generate their data. Furthermore, these experiments will clarify whether swimming motion learning is successful through the programmed feature qualities and sensory alternation methods developed by Hirokawa and his team. 'As a learning task, we set several different swimming patterns based on the usual swimming method and verified with a healthy participant whether or not they can practice the target motion pattern through sound,' he explains. 'Alongside this, we are also working on an intrinsic sensory stimulus method to promote intuitive understanding of the target movement pattern to the learner through somatosensory sensation.' This is a technique to modify motion senses and intrinsic awareness by stimulating vibration to a muscle spindle using a vibration actuator. 'This technique is said to be a sensory substitution to somatosensory information of visual information,' Hirokawa says. With the cooperation of healthy participants, he hopes to verify their new technology and its usefulness to those with visual impairment or those with coordination difficulties through swimming training. By comparative validation, they are working to narrow down to the most effective methods. While the development of the wearable technology is taking large innovative steps, Hirokawa faces new challenges and agendas. Designing equipment that transmits the distance of the lane and the timing of the turn is important for a visually impaired swimmer, however, no method for supporting the learning process itself using the mechanical system has yet been established. This is especially valuable for children with physical and mental disabilities. 'We have come to an era where learning for those with disabilities can go beyond words,' he believes. 'Everyone should be able to, regardless of their impairments, experience the movements and learn from themselves.'
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Tsukuba, Japan

Publication date: April 1, 2019

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