An 'alarming' invention for the deaf

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Photo by A. Sue Weisler

Cory Behm’s portable alarm clock creation literally shakes him awake every morning.

Cory Behm will no longer have any problems being on time. The third-year mechanical engineering student has created an alarm clock that will shake him awake. As a deaf person, Behm relies on a strong shake or a flashing light to wake him up. The alarm on his new Droid isn’t strong enough to do the job, so he, and thousands of others who don’t hear traditional alarms, must have several electrical gadgets—including a shaker, a compatible clock and adaptors—to work as alarms.

Last summer, Behm worked as a design assistant in a co-op at NTID’s Center on Access Technology, which strives to improve accessibility in education. His mission: to design and create a device that would work on a cell phone or pager as an alarm clock or notification system for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

It took him about 10 weeks, with plenty of trial and error. Seven concepts were eventually whittled down to one: a 3 -by-3 square of plastic that acts as a cradle for Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs. Sensors on the device needed to be sensitive enough to detect the vibrating PDA and send a signal to activate the shaker or a strobe light.

Behm used an accelerometer, relay circuits and light and vibration pulses. The device needed to be portable with the ability to connect to a USB outlet to recharge.

But he found that even when his phone was merely in close proximity to the cradle, it would trigger the alarm every four minutes when the phone reconnected with a satellite signal. And he learned the device would trigger with the slightest bump. A slight turn in the night or a cat brushing against a table could set off the alarm, so he had to add foam padding to protect the sensor. White LED lights are on the cradle’s sides that can also attract his attention, especially if it is used to detect an email or important message coming on the phone during the day. 

Plans are underway to have his prototype of the PDA/Telephone Notification System patented; the second generation could be redesigned to be made even smaller.

“The room for improvements and applications are endless,” Behm says. “We have to be innovative. We have to come up with new designs. This is going to give me good groundwork for future co-ops.” His experience with this project is enabling him to explore other disciplines, such as electrical engineering and digital logic design. 

“I hope to show people that deaf people have a way to work around things to improve accessibility, to figure out how to get up in the morning,” he says.