Interviews

Analyzing Facial Movement Data with Earable, the Computerized Earring (Part 1)

Kazuhiro Taniguchi

Kazuhiro Taniguchi’s computerized earring earable can gather biological data about facial expressions and chewing habits through motions captured from the outer ear, eyes, and tongue.
Interviewer & Japanese Writer: Yamamoto Takaya; Translation & Editing: Matthew Cherry

The computerized earring earable, chosen for the 2014 INNO-vation Program’s Disruptive Challenge, can be summed up in just three words: unique, wearable tech. Kazuhiro Taniguchi used parts found in everyday earbuds together with optical sensors to create a device that could detect and measure movements around the ear canal and eardrum. The device was then expanded to pick up data on eye and tongue movements, chewing habits, and facial expressions. This collected data is then analyzed and used in the medical field. The device also became hands-free during its development cycle, as it was made possible to switch on and off with the simple press of the tongue against the roof of the mouth.

Taniguchi’s area of expertise is robotic engineering, specifically research and development around robots that assist doctors performing surgery. Through his work in the engineering field, he became knowledgeable about the development of electronic circuits and apparatuses. With this wisdom, he formed the ability to unsheathe creations from his head and turn them into reality. That is how earable got its start.

Up late one night conducting research at his university’s laboratory, Taniguchi decided to chew some gum in order to cool off. His ear started to itch and he reached up to scratch it with his finger. It was then that he realized he could feel his chewing movements through his ear. Since he was at a university, he luckily had a lot of different sensors already on hand. “Fascinating, I should measure this!” he exclaimed. He got to work on preparing a 2mm-wide four-direction optical sensor. By shining light on one of these sensors, you can measure the reflection it creates.

He then found some old earbuds and reassembled them with one of the optical sensors inside, making an impromptu earbud sensor. Taniguchi remembers that night fondly, as it was hard to keep his excitement in. “After I made it possible to measure movement from inside of the ear, I started inventing even more fun and exciting features. Before the sun rose the next morning, I had already invented a way to pause and resume music with just a clamp of the teeth!

He picked up where he left off the next day, and soon realized that he could get all kinds of information from the ear. He could measure eye movement. He could pinpoint blinking. In the same way that biting down created analytical data, so did pressing the tongue. He even discovered that heart rate and body surface temperature could be measured through the device.

Taniguchi derived the device’s name from the technological term wearable, short for wearable technology. By simply removing the w, he created a portmanteau of ear and able, signifying that the device is placed on the ear and allows the wearer to do more than previously able.

Taniguchi is sat in front of the desk working on his prototype device earable

Development of earable.

Taniguchi’s groundbreaking earable was starting to get noticed. One of the company’s showing interest was Lotte, whose flagship product is chewing gum. Using the functionality found inside earable, Lotte and Taniguchi co-developed LOTTE RHYTHMI-KAMU, a device and mobile application that monitors chewing activity.

earable’s functionality didn’t stop there. Its information on chewing habits and pulse enabled it to be a strong monitoring device for the elderly, resulting in his research at Hiroshima University, “Development of life support information system for elderly people by industry-university-government collaboration in Hiroshima City”.

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the development process within the INNO-vation Program.

Photo of Kazuhiro Taniguchi outdoors

Part 2 coming March 28th, 2021


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