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.

29 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now?

    1. tine hairs?

      What category of medical device? It matters, a great deal. As an example, the incorrect, overly restrictive classification of the female condom pushed back it’s widespread adoption by about two decades and changed the extra costs to be overcome to bring it to market by millions.

      The female condom product category has significantly evolved since the USFDA first reviewed the FC1 female condom in 1993. At that time, the FDA determined female condoms should be a Class III medical device since the potential failure modes were determined to be significantly different than male condoms and clinical evidence was available on only one product.

  1. ” increases dramatically with a 3db increase cutting the safety time in half.”…gee, who would have thought that double the power is not a dramatic increase…
    People seem to keep forgetting that the decibel is logarithmic, not linear…

      1. Sound perceived as twice as loud is roughly a 10dB increase, not doubling. Doubling the dB has no real meaning here since dB is a logarithmic scale, in a similar sense as to when the weather reader says it will be “twice as warm” because it was 10C today and it will be 20 tomorrow.

  2. I’m kind of unclear on who the real target market for the Aegis headphones really is. Most teenagers who put their headphones up really loud are probably well aware they’re doing hearing damage by now; they simply don’t seem to care. Those that do, turn it down.

    1. As a form of parental control of sorts I suppose
      But after all even conscious users might end up cranking the volume up way too high after prolonged sessions, it is for thix exact reason android has a notification popping up after turning the volume up over a certain threshold while using the headphone jack

      1. Yeah, I think letting the user know (or providing a limit as Aegis does) is a huge improvement. I have earbuds that have baffles shaped like ear plugs. When somewhere noisy like on the bus or on a plane it’s very hard to gauge if I’m listening too loudly since I’m trying to overcome the ambient noise around me. I take that Android warning message seriously.

    2. Idk if its that they don’t care or not, as much as its really easy to do damage w/o intending to do so. These headphones make it so that you can’t crank your headphones up or have an extra loud song come on suddenly and do damage.

      If i was a parent of a teen i would certainly consider buying them something like this, in addition to making sure they had a proper education in sound safety. So maybe thats the target market?

      now we just need the earbud version of this and to maybe make it mandatory in all headphones…

    3. Yup. Just don’t see a market for quiet headphones.

      As it is, Sony had an “Auto Volume Limiter System” on their Walkmans back in the 1980s. I had it on a walkman of mine, dunno if it was a Sony, but never used it. This isn’t a new idea.

      What would be really useful, is something to play MP3s louder on my phone. As ever, if a song is recorded too quietly, even full volume won’t play it loudly enough. Basically a pre-amp. Winamp has it, it’s hardly rocket science, but most Android music players don’t. So I have to use MP3Gain on the PC beforehand to fix the MP3s.

      By the time I go deaf we’ll have robot ears anyway. But another solution to this problem might be earphones with better noise reduction. You turn your music up if the environment is noisy. Either active or passive noise reduction would be good. Those crappy little ear-pip things that came into fashion in the 1990s are useless, fortunately fashion has come back around to proper-sized headphones now. The little pips only come as the cheapest of crappy included headsets.

      The one useful part of this would be peak-limiting, or “anti ear-rape”. Loud bits in otherwise quiet media. There’s a small demand for that. Though I believe the ear can take the odd sonic shock and recover completely, it’s prolonged noise that matters.

      1. The problem on those walkman (they even had them on later sony CD players) is that it doesn’t take the headphone into consideration. With wired headphones, full volume on one set of phones will vary from another. Bluetooth has helped that some, in that the driver is in the headphone and not the player.

        I suspect that if I were a parent, or if these were around when I was younger, I’d be buying a set of these quick. I used to have a set of really crappy 8 ohm headphones that my parents thought were “way too loud to be safe”. My sibling’s earbuds were “obviously safer” because they could hear the music from my headphones but not the sib’s. Problem was, my over the ear (not ear muffs) were so badly designed that about half the mids and lows were played to the outside world; so of course it sounded like I had the music really loud when listening to bass heavy tunes. Would they have spent $100 20 years ago? Well, inflation and the lack of bluetooth hopefully would have made them cheaper 20 years ago. And I think my first CD player probably cost about that much.

        1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of decent ones in that case. Is it a specialist thing? Even then there’s the awful bass response, there’s only so much sound you can put through a tiny little circle of vibrating plastic. Frequency response in general isn’t up to much in any pair I’ve ever worn. Which isn’t too many, admittedly. Currently got a nice pair of cheap Chinese Bluetooth ones, they’re fine. They answer phone calls and have volume and back / next controls, play / pause / answer call, and by holding it down you can even last-number redial.

          One day I’ll figure how to get voice-dialling working through it, “OK Google” seems responsive. And I’m getting my water-damaged smarter phone fixed next week if I’m lucky. Apparently the power / charger stuff is on a separate board to the mainboard, so that saves a potential disaster. Apart from not charging, it works fine.

  3. The problem is, the main reasons I see for turning headphones up so loud are usually to: 1 – drown out the outside world or 2 – increase immersion. Neither of which are done to a satisfactory level at safe listening volumes in most cases.

    Noise isolation and noise canceling headphones do better to eliminate the world around you, but little sounds just won’t cut it when going for that aural high.

    Now if excessively loud sound with a decent frequency responds and dynamic sound can be faked at safe levels, I would really want to see (hear) that. Maybe all the rebelous teenagers and such just need the illusion of loud to send chills down their spines.. I have much less trouble getting into the music at a club or venu where I have to (and do) wear ear plugs vs one where I can speak only with a slightly elevated voice.

    1. You could do something like the loudness button on old stereos – a “smily face” equalization will roughly approximate the differences in frequency response of the ear at higher volumes.

  4. Don’t avoid music just because you might not understand the lyrics. When Zappa’s Bobby Brown became popular over here, few people were fluent in English. It is still played on the radio although you can have an English conversation with almost everyone aged 14 to 40.

    1. I love music. I play keyboard and enjoy singing. The coffee house I’d like to attend is folk music so the lyrics, tune, and patter tend to be soft. It just gets frustrating. I often search for lyrics on the web to see what they are really saying in popular songs. You’d be surprised how different what I hear is from the actual lyrics.

      1. That’s not a deaf thing, that’s the same for everyone. Takes several listens sometimes, and often you never figure out the lyrics without looking them up. Normal for most genres of popular music.

  5. While we’re discussing “assistive technology”, I want bring up my own product because I think it speaks to what Rud is talking about.

    About a year ago I began working on a product called “Sapphire”, you can see the details here: http://sapphirepowered.com/. The tl;dr is simple: a bluetooth remote control that attaches to a crutch handle so people who walk with crutches and don’t have a free hand can easily control their music.

    My wife walks with crutches and that is what sprouted the idea, and I thought about if off-and-on for 10 years but always thought I’d didn’t know enough about hardware to build it. Then, in 2014, I started learning about the “Maker” movement, the Arduino and open hardware and realized that yes, I could actually build this thing. Countless other people had already done the hard parts for me so that I could focus on building the idea.

    So, with the help of the internet (people in the Hack-a-day forums included) I was actually able to build a proof-of-concept model. Then another prototype, and another and then came the 3D printer and another round of prototypes. Finally, I have a prototype that works and can be used every day. My goal is to one day have something people can actually buy and use.

    My point is this: we’re finally at a point where a specific community itself can build solutions for their unique requirements. Just like cheap microcomputers allowed anyone to write their own programs tailored to their own needs, cheap and accessible micro-controllers and 3D printers are allowing anyone to build their own hardware that does just what they want in exactly the way they want.

    1. Disregard my comment. I’d noticed that your question had been left unanswered for hours, but apparently I’d forgotten to hit post before I grabbed dinner. Rud posted in the meantime, and I saw his response when the page refreshed.

      I’m not one of those “me too” idiots. I’m one of those “needs a delete key” idiots.

    1. I’d be scared of someone pulling on it. Probably because whenever I see one of those big looped ear lobes I just want to pull on it. I’d love to know why people do this in western culture, what do they hope to look like when they are 80 years old? They’d be able to hold up their trousers with them!

  6. Great post. I dig the look of the concept HAs above, but I think the current miniscule size that most BTEs can reach reduces the need for it. It would make for a sweet set of CI processors though.

    The wearable tech is going to be so neat to follow in the coming years. My dream as a hearing aid user myself would be a pair of HAs paired to a Google Glass type thing where you could actually received a visual indication about who is presently speaking. It could even have a eye movement to tracker where it could focus only on amplifying the voice of the speaker you are currently looking at rather than conventional HAs that just use a best guess approach to the listeners focus.

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