Technology cuts through the noise

Friday, 14 February, 2014

Having difficulty listening to conversations in noisy cafes and social gatherings? This could soon be a thing of the past for the hearing impaired, due to technology that cuts through background noise.

Developed by researchers at the HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (HEARing CRC), the University of Melbourne and the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL), initial testing has shown the technology can improve speech understanding in noisy environments by up to 50% for hearing-aid users.

Co‐inventor Dr Jorge Mejia, who is leading the HEARing CRC research team, said the success of the technology was its ability to reduce unwanted noise through combining the outputs of two microphones located on each side of the head to create a super‐directional output.

“This, in effect, creates an invisible beam in the direction the hearing-aid wearer is facing while reducing noise from the side. The wearer can then steer the beam to the left or the right of the head as desired, in the direction of the person speaking,” Dr Mejia said.

Co‐inventor and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne Dr Richard Van Hoesel said the technology was solving the number one problem for hearing aid and cochlear implant users - the ability to hear in noisy situations.

“Hearing-aid users tend to switch off in those situations as it is too hard to engage,” he said.

“This technology has the potential to dramatically improve current hearing devices. Standard hearing aids work fine in quiet environments, say at home, but are not so great at letting the listener focus in on who is speaking when there is back ground noise in social situations,” he said.

The director of National Acoustics Laboratories, Adjunct Professor Harvey Dillon, said the technology was the most exciting innovation in the hearing-aid industry.

“I expect it will change the way the general population think about hearing aids. As well as directly helping the people who use this invention, the super‐hearing it offers may eliminate the stigma that some people still associate with hearing aids,” Prof Dillon said.

The technology known as Super‐directional Beamformer is currently being evaluated in hearing laboratories for a range of realistic acoustic settings at the University of Melbourne and NAL. This evaluation involves working with a select group of people who wear hearing aids, or cochlear implants, to help fine-tune the technology’s performance with varying amounts of noise coming from different locations.

The evaluation is expected to be completed later this year and will provide vital information needed to include the technology into commercial hearing aids and cochlear implant systems.

The technology has been granted several Australian and international patents and at this early stage of development, has already attracted significant private sector interest.

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