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Engineering the future of assistive technology

The assistive technology community has long been close knit. The result? Limited innovation. Now it’s opening up to much wider influence, particularly from the world of engineering. Could this be a breakthrough in finding solutions to the problems people with deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss face every day? Our Technology Manager, Jesal Vishnuram, finds out.

Action on Hearing Loss is well placed to understand the needs of people with deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss. But what’s missing are the knowledge and technical skills to develop technology to meet those needs. That’s why we’ve joined forces with the BBC’s ‘The Big Life Fix’. The programme’s engineering team addresses the real-life problems faced by people with disabilities and comes up with innovative solutions.

Fixing it for Bobby

Bobby is 73 years old and has lost his hearing through brittle bone disease. He’s no longer able to use hearing aids or a cochlear implant and his lipreading skills have deteriorated. He’s completely dependent on his wife to communicate for him in all aspects of his life. Bobby is also extremely worried about his safety when out and about, as he isn’t able to hear or locate the sound of cars, bicycle bells, sirens and other environmental sounds.

His situation will be familiar to many people with hearing loss and deafness, even those who use hearing aids and cochlear implants. For many, in an increasingly noisy world, assistive devices such as remote microphones, amplified telephones and Bluetooth streaming devices still aren’t enough.

The research

The Big Life Fix engineer Akram Hussein jumped at the chance to help Bobby. Keen to put himself in Bobby’s shoes, he filled his ears with silicon to simulate hearing loss. Although not as severe as Bobby’s condition, the loss of hearing quickly helped Akram understand what it’s like not being able to hear speech or localise sound, and how isolating it feels to be cut off from the world and people around you.

We helped Akram with his research by demonstrating the current range of assistive technologies, discussing what works well and their limitations. The most popular is the Phonak Roger Pen, which helps hearing aid and cochlear implant users hear speech more clearly in one-to-one and group conversations, and on landline and mobile phones, including streaming audio from smartphones and tablets. We also went through other popular devices, including conversations listeners, amplified phones and TV listeners.

There’s a tablet for that

Akram, who specialises in software and app development, quickly identified speech-to-text (STT) software as a fix. STT has been around for a long time. It’s used mainly in the business world to translate telephone calls such as Skype, and for typing up medical notes. Currently, there’s no handy, off-the-shelf STT solution for people with deafness or hearing loss.

Akram set about solving the group conversation problem, quickly developing a test version of an STT app for us to try on a tablet. We all had to wear a fairly large, heavy tablet around our necks that picked up our speech via the microphone and translated it into text on the tablet – not the most practical solution.

The test helped Akram identify the speed, accuracy and ease of reading the text translations. The speed was very impressive and accuracy seemed to improve as the conversation went on and the software ‘learned’ the context of the conversation. However, without any breaks in the text, it was very difficult to follow long conversations or identify who was speaking in the group while focused on reading text on the tablet.

With this feedback, Akram went back to tweak the technology so that it was easy and practical for Bobby to use. Akram also worked on his second fix – a cap to help alert Bobby to environmental dangers when out and about. The cap had four vibrating pads at the back with a phone attached. Any moving images picked up by the phone’s camera would alert Bobby to the direction of the moving vehicle or bike.

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