Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s great to build projects just to do something neat, to learn; to impress friends and other hackers. It’s even better to address a real need.

I’ve worn hearing aids for 40 some years. My response to the question “Can you hear me now?” is still all too often, “No.” Because of this I heartily applaud the Aegis Acoustics Headset currently active on Kickstarter. I’m happy to see it’s blown through its goal with over a month left.

The Aegis is targeted at prevent hearing loss, primarily in teens since they use headsets so often. It’s equally applicable to adults and pre-teens. The Aegis works by limiting the sound level emitted to 85db, which is a safe level. Above that the risk of damage to the tiny hairs in the cochlea – the inner ear – increases dramatically with a 3db increase cutting the safety time in half.

Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear ‘Aids

My personal experience explains why this is important. At my first professional level job as a software developer I noticed that people at the other end of the table often mumbled during meetings. Not really, because everyone else understood them fine. I needed hearing aids.

My first hearing aids were analog devices. There were three frequency bands across the audio spectrum whose volumes could be custom set for my ears — resulting in crude and limited improvements in what I could hear. My current hearing aids are technological marvels of digital signal processing with a multitude of algorithms the audiologist can use to help me hear better. They even coordinate their actions by communicating between themselves.

I still need to ask people to repeat what they say at times. But who doesn’t? I had a successful career despite my loss. But it is still a royal pain-in-the-butt to miss out on one-third of the dialog in a movie, to not go to a local coffee house because I won’t understand the lyrics or comments by the musicians, and miss out on all the other small parts of life along these lines.

Hacking for Hearing

There are a range of areas where hackers could contribute and not just in assisting individuals, like myself, who personally gain from technological assistance.

Consider how the cell phone improved communications in developing countries. Using radio communications the countries avoided the need to string thousands of miles of wires. That saved the expense and the decades of construction time. It’s easier to get cell phone service than water in some locations. It’s important to notice that it didn’t come about because of a big plan. It came about as an unseen consequence of a technical development.

“We can rebuild him…we have the technology” is from the opening of an old TV series and movies, “The 6 Million Dollar Man” and has found it’s place in the pop-culture vocabulary. But it rings true. We have the technology. We have the tools. We have the expertise. We’re hackers and builders. We and the technology are all over the place. We’re a solution looking for a problem.

Devices that Extend the Body

All signs point to a coming revolution of devices that protect our bodies and make them work better. The 2015 Hackaday Prize theme is Build Something That Matters and that sentiment is obviously taking hold throughout the hardware hacker movement. The Aegis headphones I mentioned above are one example of preventive devices, but look around and there are many more like the UV-Badge which gives you feedback on safe levels of sunlight for your skin.

Surely we’re going to see further augmentation for the devices that help restore function. Wearables are all the rage, how long will it be before your smartwatch notification functions make it into my hearing aids? Imagine the improvements we will see in custom hearing profiles born of that smartphone-hearing aid connection. The foundations of this are user-controlled profile switching which is already in place for apps like Belltone’s HearPlus. If the advanced electronics in the smartphone can build a better noise profile and transfer it to the hearing aid my visits to the coffee shop just might get a lot better. And this doesn’t mean the devices need to look the same either. I love the Design Affairs Studio hearing aid concept that is shown at the top of this article. Hardware can be a status symbol after all.

This type of forward thinking easily extends to all assistive technologies such as wheelchair improvements and navigation systems for the blind.

As you look toward your next big hack, roll these concepts around in your mind. The tools, software, and talent have never been easier to connect for our group of citizen scientists who are hacking in basements and garages. It’s exciting to think about the change we can affect using the skills honed over the past decades of this hardware enlightenment we’re all living.

Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Individualized Breathing Apparatus

Preterm infants frequently require ventilator support while they’re in the neonatal ICU, and this is usually done with a CPAP machine. The machine to infant interface is called a nasal cannula, a bit of plastic that connects an infant’s nose to the machine. Because there aren’t that many sizes of nasal cannula available, and preemies come in all sizes, there are inevitable problems. Ill-fitting nasal cannula can reduce the effectiveness of a CPAP, and can even cause significant damage to an infant’s septum.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Ben] is tackling this problem head on. He’s working on creating individualized nasal cannula for newborns using 3D modeling and printing, allowing nasal cannula of all shapes and sizes to be created in a matter of hours.

To create these customized cannula, [Ben] is 3D scanning an infant mannequin head to gather enough data to import it into a Processing sketch. A custom cannula is then created and printed with flexible 3D printer filament. In theory, it should work, apart from the considerations involved in building a medical device.

As for why custom plastic tubes matter, [Ben] works at the only NICU in Western Australia. Even though he only sees 8-10 CPAP ‘pressure injuries’ in his unit each year, these kids are extremely fragile and some parents have expressed a desire for something that isn’t as uncomfortable for their newborn than the off-the-shelf solution. Customizing these cannula from a quick 3D scan is a great way to do that, and a perfect example of the Hackaday Prize theme of ‘build something that matters.’

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: OpenBionics Affordable Prosthetic Hands

The human hand is an amazing machine, and duplicating even a fraction of its abilities in a prosthetic is a daunting task. Flexible anthropomorphic prosthetics can reach tens of thousands of dollars and are beyond the means of many of the people who need them. So imagine the impact a $200USD prosthetic hand could have.

For such a low, low price you might expect a simple hook or pincer grip hand, but the OpenBionics initiative designed their hand from the outset to mimic the human hand as much as possible. The fingers are Plexiglas with silicone knuckles that are flexed by tendon cables running in sheaths and extended by energy stored in elastomeric material running along their dorsal aspects. Each finger can be selectively locked in place using a differential based on the whiffletree mechanism, resulting in 16 combinations of finger positions with only a single motor. Combined with 9 unique thumb positions, 144 unique grasp are possible with the open source hand built from hardware store and 3D printed parts. Stay tuned for a video of the hand in action after the break.

3D printing is beginning to prove it’s the next big thing in prosthetics. Hackers are coming up with all kinds of static artificial hands, from the elegant to super-hero themed. Maybe the mechanism that OpenBionics has come up with will find its way into these hands – after all, it is an open source project.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Hack Your Rib Cage with Titanium 3D Printing

A Spanish hospital recently replaced a significant amount of a man’s rib cage and sternum with a titanium replacement. Putting titanium inside people’s chests is nothing new, but what made this different was the implant was 3D printed to match his existing bone structure.

An Australian company, Anatomics, created the 3D print from high-resolution CT scans of the patient. They used a printer provided by an Australian Government corporate entity, CSIRO, that helps bring technology to Australian companies.

Biomedical printing has been in the news quite a bit lately and we’ve covered CT scan to 3D model conversions more than once. Is this the dawn of the age of the cyborg? Maybe it’s really mid morning. Many people walk around with pacemakers, Vagus nerve stimulators, and plenty of more conventional titanium hardware in them now.

While the ethics of replacing a cancer patient’s rib cage is pretty clear, the real issue will be when people want enhancements just for the sake of it (think of the controversy surrounding runners with prosthetic legs, for example). It might seem far-fetched, but as replacements become better than originals, some people will want to opt for replacements for perfectly good body parts.

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Smart Medication Dispenser

The biggest problems with pharmaceuticals isn’t patents, industry reps, or the fact that advertisement to consumers is allowed; this only happens in the United States. No, the biggest problem with pills and medications is compliance, or making sure the people who are prescribed medication take their medication. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Joe] is working on a solution. It’s a smart desktop medicine organizer, and you can think of it as a pill box with smarts.

The list of features of [Joe]’s organizer include automatic pill organization – each prescription is accessed independently of all the others. When it’s time to take a pill, the smart medication dispenser plops out a pill. You can check out the demo video [Joe] put together using M&M candies.

There are a few more features for the Smart Desktop Medicine Organizer, including connecting to pharmacy APIs to order refills, checking for drug interactions, and setting timers (or not) for different medications; meds that should be taken every day will be dispensed every day, but drugs taken as needed up to a maximum limit will be dispensed as needed.

It’s a very cool project, and you can check out [Joe]’s video for the project below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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How Biohackers are Fighting a Two-front War on Antibiotic Resistance

We humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution on the planet, but that’s just a conceit. It takes humans roughly twenty years to reproduce, whereas some bacteria can make copies of themselves every 20 minutes. Countless generations of bacteria have honed and perfected their genomes into extremely evolved biological machines.

Most bacteria are harmless, and some are quite useful, even tasty – witness the lactofermented pickles and sauerkraut I made this summer. But some bacteria are pathogenic nightmares that have swarmed over the planet and caused untold misery and billions of deaths. For most of human history it has been so – the bugs were winning. Then a bright period dawned in the early 20th century – the Era of Antibiotics. At last we were delivered from the threat of pestilence, never more to suffer from plague and disease like our unfortunate ancestors. Infections were miraculously cured with a simple injection or pill, childhood diseases were no longer reaping their tragic harvest, and soldiers on the battlefield were surviving wounds that would have festered and led to a slow, painful death.

Now it seems like this bright spot of relief from bacterial disease might be drawing to an end. Resistant strains of bacteria are in the news these days, and the rise of superbugs seems inevitable. But is it? Have we run out of tools to fight back? Not quite yet as it turns out. But there’s a lot of work to do to make sure we win this battle.

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The Race to Develop Technology that Enhances Elder Care

It happens with every generation – we’re born, our parents care for us and nurture us, we grow up, they grow old, and then we switch roles and care for them. Soon it’ll be my turn to be the caregiver to my parents, and I recently got a preview of things to come when my mom fell and busted her ankle. That it wasn’t the classic broken hip was a relief, but even “just” a broken ankle was difficult enough to deal with. I live 40 minutes away from the ‘rents, and while that’s not too bad when the visits are just the weekly dinner at Grammy’s, the time and the miles really start to add up when the visits turn into every other day to make sure Mom’s getting around OK and Dad is eating and sleeping.

I was sorely tempted to hack some kind of solution to give myself a rudimentary telepresence, but I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t have either been unacceptably intrusive (think webcams) or difficult to support from an IT perspective. Mom’s pretty handy with the iPad and she Skypes with my brother and his family out in California, but beyond leveraging that I was tapped out for ideas that I could easily deploy and would deliver sufficient value beyond the support burden within the time frame of healing the ankle. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in the car this summer.

This experience got me to thinking about how intergenerational caregiving will change with the rise of pervasive technology. The bad news: we’re still going to get old, and getting old sucks. The good news is, I think technology is going to make things easier for caregivers and elders alike. We have an incredible range of technology experiences among the generations present right now, from my parents who can remember phones without dials and nights spent listening to the radio, to my daughter’s generation that is practically growing up with supercomputers in the palms of their hands. How each generation ages and how it embraces technology as a solution for age-related problems are going to be vastly different.

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