Welcome back to Inputs of Interest! If you haven’t heard, I am all ears when it comes to new ways of talking to computers and machines. And speaking of ears, did you know they can do useful tricks? If you squeeze your eyes shut tightly and/or yawn widely, you might hear a low-level rumbling sound like distant thunder. A decent percentage of people are able to move theirs voluntarily, but not everyone. Maybe you already knew you could rumble, and have used it to entertain yourself, or dampen the unpleasant sounds of life.
That rumbling is caused by a muscle in your middle ear stretching out. It’s called the tensor tympani, and its purpose is to shield your ears from loud sounds like chewing, and oddly enough, thunder. When the tensor tympani are activated, they pull the eardrums taut to keep them from vibrating and getting damaged. Unfortunately, they don’t react quickly enough to protect us from sudden sounds like gunshots.
Assistive technology is extremely fertile ground for hackers to make a difference, because of the unique requirements of each user and the high costs of commercial solutions. [Nick] has been working on Earswitch, an innovative assistive tech switch that can be actuated using voluntary movement of the middle ear muscle.
Most people don’t know they can contract their middle ear muscle, technically called the tensor tympani, but will recognise it as a rumbling sound or muffling effect of your hearing when yawning or tightly closing eyes. Its function is actually to protect your hearing from loud sounds screaming or chewing. [Nick] ran a survey and found that 75% can consciously contract the tensor tympani and 17% of can do it in isolation from other movements. Using a cheap USB auroscope (an ear camera like the one [Jenny] reviewed in November), he was able to detect the movement using iSpy, an open source software package meant for video surveillance. The output from iSpy is used to control Grid3, a commercial assistive technology software package. [Nick] also envisions the technology being used as a control interface for consumer electronics via earphones.
With the proof of concept done, [Nick] is looking at ways to make the tech more practical to actually use, possibly with a CMOS camera module inside a standard noise canceling headphones. Simpler optical sensors like reflectance or time-of-flight are also options being investigated. If you have suggestions for or possible use case, drop by on the project page.
Assistive tech always makes for interesting hacks. We recently saw a robotic arm that helps people feed themselves, and the 2017 Hackaday Prize has an entire stage that was focused on assistive technology.
Those of us who trawl the world of cheap imported goods will most often stay in our own comfortable zones as we search for new items to amaze and entertain us. We’ll have listings of electronic goods or tools, and so perhaps miss out on the scores of other wonders that can be ours for only a few dollars and a week or two’s wait for postage.
Just occasionally though something will burst out of another of those zones and unexpectedly catch our eye, and we are sent down an entirely new avenue in the global online supermarket.
Thus it was that when a few weeks ago I was looking for an inspection camera I had a listing appear from the world of personal grooming products. It seems that aural hygiene is a big market, and among the many other products devoted to it is an entire category of ear wax removal tools equipped with cameras. These can get you up close and personal with your ear canal, presumably so you can have a satisfying scoop at any accumulated bodily goop. I have a ton of electronics-related uses for a cheap USB close-up camera so I bought one of these so I could — if you’ll excuse the expression — get a closer look.