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A team of researchers from Sargent College at Boston University have developed a hearing aid that can filter sounds by using visual cues.

Hearing Aid Prototype

Since 2011, Professor Gerald Kidd has been developing the idea of a hearing aid system that is controlled by visual cues, and in 2012 he and a group of researchers at Sargent College’s Sound Fuel Laboratory created a hearing aid prototype that could actually tune in to specific sounds, depending on where the user directed his or her eyes.

One of the motivating factors for Professor Kidd’s invention was the dilemma that hearing-impaired individuals face when they are placed in noisy environments and are unable to hold conversations due to infiltrating background noise. Professor Kidd realized that the problem with normal hearing aids is that they will magnify general noises indiscriminately but won’t make certain sources of noise louder, like the sound of a person’s voice. One-fifth of Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss so significant that they find it difficult to communicate in excessively noisy environments, making new developments in hearing aid technology a necessity.

Hearing Aids and Background Noise

The Visually Guided Hearing Aid (VGHA) utilizes eye movement. It is akin to using a flashlight, where the user’s focus is directed to a specific area. The device uses an acoustic beam and an eye-tracker called Mobile Eye-XG, which combine to produce a microarray effect for the user. In many respects the VGHA is more efficient than standard hearing aids because it integrates information that is important to the wearer, filtering out background noise.

The added benefit of the VGHA is that it is less invasive and more comfortable than other hearing aid devices including cochlear implants and bone-anchored hearing aids. Professor Kidd collaborated with members of the Sensimetrics Corporation in Malden, Mass. and Sylvain Favrot, a research engineer in Sargent College’s speech, language, and hearing sciences department, to create the original prototype.

One of the first volunteers to use the device was Erick Gallun, a research investigator at National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research. Deaf in one ear, Mr. Gallun had experienced hearing aid difficulty while attending a White Stripes music concert, where his right ear was not able to separate the music from the background noise. Gallun found that the new hearing device would be a useful tool for both him and the war veterans he interacts with at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oregon.

Hearing Aid Structure and Function

The different modules of the VGHA connect to computers and other interfaces, but Kidd and Favrot believe that in the future this hearing device can be expected to take the form of modified glasses, becoming more light weight and resembling a structure very similar to that of Google Glass. Other recent hearing aid inventions include hearing aid microsystems and electric cochlear implants. Though still in its prototype phase, the visually guided hearing aid promises to be an extraordinary new innovation for the future.

by Aaron Rodriques