Monday, January 11, 2010

An Unexpected Collaborative Path

David Botticello, a sophomore studying history and political philosophy, is working with his professor, Brian Glenney, and fellow student Zachary Capalbo on a sensory-substitution device. He shares a recent testing experience from the bustle of Boston’s Harvard Square.

“My second semester I started working outside the classroom with Dr. Brian Glenney on neuroscience research. I began training on a contrivance called a sensory-substitution device. At the same time, my classmate, Zachary, a computer science and philosophy major, was working on creating a software program that would use color as a primary medium for information. The technology converts visual imagery into various individual noises through a camera—serving to translate sight into sound. The device could one day have the potential to literally give sight to the blind. After only four hours of training on the sensory-substitution device, Zachary, Dr. Glenney and I set off for Harvard Square in Boston to test the device in a more open environment.
“Even though the technology still is in process and needs improvement (bumping into windows was not very comfortable), the device was working. In the city I was able to navigate crowded streets, climb stairs, and follow a path—all completely blindfolded. After about four or five hours of using the device, I began to understand its various sounds as different colors and shapes. Understanding the transition was similar to learning a new word in a foreign language; there comes a point when a person ceases to translate the word every time it’s heard and instead automatically understands its meaning.

“The device also received surprise responses from observers. Often I was taken as either handicapped or quite eccentric. As we ventured onto Harvard University’s campus, students remarked on the innovation as ‘inspiring.’ Little did they know I was not a Harvard student but rather an undergraduate student at Gordon College—a place I know and love for the unique opportunities I have there.

“The training itself has deepened my studies on humanity—providing insight into how people view their world and how human interaction changes to fit circumstances. Through this unexpected collaborative path, I’ve furthered my goals and have been inspired academically . . . My future is now a part of this work, and, as a sophomore, to be this intellectually engaged in such profound work is amazing.”

David is from Manchester, CT. A streaming video of their Harvard Square experiment is now on display in the Barrington Center for the Arts.

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