Software 'hearing dummies' customize hearing aids

Researchers use computer algorithms and a new testing model to design hearing aids that are built to address the causes, not symptoms, of hearing impairments.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Many of us know at least one person who has a hearing aid that sits on a shelf somewhere, collecting dust. The usual complaint: The thing just doesn't work right.

The team's prototype hearing aid Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

A professor at the University of Essex in the U.K. says these aren't just excuses, but legitimate complaints. "Today's hearing aids don't help to separate sounds--they just amplify them," said Ray Meddis, who has led work on a new kind of hearing aid. "They often make everything too noisy for the wearer, especially in social situations like parties, and some wearers still can't make out what people are saying to them. They find the whole experience so uncomfortable that they end up taking their hearing aids out," Meddis said in a statement released today.

Meddis and his team at Essex have been working on a new kind of aid they say could revolutionize what is now an antiquated approach to treating hearing impairments. The key, they say, is to use unique computer models (what they call "hearing dummies") that treat the root causes, not just the symptoms, of the user's unique condition.

"In the same way that a tailor's dummy is used to measure and fit a garment for a particular person, our software dummy is used to gauge a patient's hearing requirements so that their hearing aid can then be programmed to suit their needs," Meddis said.

To do this, the team has devised a new type of hearing test that concentrates on higher sound levels typical of everyday life, as opposed to the current standard called "threshold testing," which identifies how quiet a sound can get and still be audible to the patient.

Meddis and his team have been working with hearing-aid manufacturer Phonak to design the lab version of their customizable hearing aid (see photo above), and are already testing it on patients. Next up: Fine-tune the software and create a smaller version of the tech more in line with standard hearing-aid sizing.

The project, nicknamed Hearing Dummy, is a three-and-a-half-year research effort with almost $600,000 in funding from several foundations and research institutes in the U.K. The team hopes that, if clinical testing goes well, their new hearing aid could reach the market within four years.