Published on

Hearing Aids and Dangerous Ideas

  • Name
    Dorothy Hardy
    COG-MHEAR Research Programme Manager

‘Hearing Aids Don’t Work’ was live on stage during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show started with some lively audience participation, as host comedian Susan Morrison tried to take different restaurant orders from all members of the audience at once. The resulting din was an example of the type of noise that makes it very difficult to hear anything useful when wearing a hearing aid in a noisy place.

Dr Dorothy Hardy brought out the answer: something that looked like a body worn camera made from an ice cream carton and the inside of a loo roll. It was nicely scaled up to match a giant hearing aid: two halves of a large peanut butter tub with a band to hold them over Susan’s ears. This could amplify sound (like holding seashells to your ears). Dorothy explained how the work on the COG-MHEAR research programme is about making hearing aids that do what we do naturally when we listen, which is to watch the person that you want to hear. Teams of researchers at several universities are working out designs for hearing aids that film a fuzzy video of the person that you want to hear, selecting the lip movements. This film is compared with the sound from the microphones in your hearing aid. Then noise cancelling software kicks in to cut out sounds that do not seem to be anything to do with the image of a mouth that the camera is picking up. The background noise is filtered out, including other people speaking.

One of the big questions about this technology is privacy. This divides the research teams working on the programme. The argument goes like this: cameras are just about everywhere now, so using them a bit more is going to become natural; contrasted with: No way! What if I need to walk into a changing room; have an intimate conversation: maybe about my food order?

And one question from our user group was: will I have to explain why I’m wearing a camera, over and over again, many times a day? It’s to pick up sound, but it’s a camera. It’s a low resolution camera. The camera only tracks the outline of your lips. It works with a microphone, so that I can hear you clearly. It is not storing recordings. So the first testers of this new type of hearing aid will be pioneers not only in hearing technology, but also in a big experiment that we’re all taking part in: deciding how and when we let cameras into our lives. Remember that this is not a ‘standard’ camera. It is very basic, and does not have the storage capacity to record. Maybe for now it will be necessary to wear a badge saying ‘Filming but not filming’ just until we’ve got used to the fact that cameras are everywhere.

Dorothy started the Question and Answer session by asking: Would you wear a small, simple camera in order to be able to hear well? How would you wear your camera? And would you wear it in a restaurant? Where else?

Join our user group if you are interested in finding out more about the technology and maybe testing some. You can join whether or not you wear hearing aids -