U of G student developing digital hearing aid to screen out background
Coming to the aid of hearing
As with many things in life, we tend to take hearing for granted until it's compromised or gone.
Then, we may have to rely on hearing aids that, despite being marvels of miniaturization, still have their limitations.
Hearing is quite complex, its components a sophisticated interconnected web allowing us to apprehend sounds aurally.
This is done through stimulation of the auditory system by sound waves.
When something goes wrong and hearing is compromised, many people turn to hearing aids, which are electrical or electronic devices for amplifying sounds. The louder the sound, the better you hear - generally speaking.
While hearing aids have gradually improved over the years and today are also quite esthetically discreet, they're not the perfect solution to hearing loss (partial deafness).
A main problem remains irksome background noise.
Now, University of Guelph Masters student Ed Chau, a student of engineering Prof. Bob Dony, is hopeful he can resolve this by developing a digital hearing aid to screen out distorting background noise.
"I'm not happy with what I have," says Chau, who wears a hearing aid because of hereditary hearing loss.
Chau has received a post-graduate industrial scholarship of almost $14,000 a year from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), the local university and a Waterloo company called "dspfactory" that is at the forefront of hearing aid and other miniaturization technology.
Dspfactory, with a staff of about a dozen to date, is a recent spinoff of Kitchener-based hearing aid manufacturer Unitron.
The new company designs and makes integrated circuits that offer very low-powered digital signal processing for a range of products.
The significance of this will all become clear in a moment.
Technical vice-president Todd Schneider calls the firm a "fabless" creator of semi-conductors. That means it designs the products and outsources their manufacture.
Their field of expertise, one in which they see considerable potential, is programmable computer chips on the cutting edge of smallness, computing power, applications and capabilities through digital signal processing. Because of its parent, its products today are for the hearing aid industry, but Schneider and associates want to expand this into other emerging niches, such as personal digital assistants and low power wireless applications.
This has made possible Chau's research project, which harnesses dspfactory's capabilities.
The research entails developing an algorithm to recognize and remove background noise.
An algorithm is a sequence of mathematical and logical operations designed to achieve a particular goal. Nowadays, that's done with the aid of a computer.
You can think of it as similar in concept to the way Dolby reduced background hiss on recordings such as music cassettes.
Schneider said Chau is researching neural networks to do so, and using a sophisticated two-microphone setup to focus in on a sound. A neural network is a system of interconnections which resembles or is based on the arrangement of neurons in our brains or nervous systems, or a computer configuration to simulate this.
Schneider said this capability is based on years of research by his company. It's allowed dspfactory to get to the point it can take continual digital signal processing and "stick it in your ear."
The resultant hearing aids, he said, have more computing power in it than the original desktop personal computer did.
They can process five million instructions a second on a battery that lasts 100 hours before it needs to be replaced.
Essentially, he said, they're software-programmable minicomputers. In fact, he foresees the software in these hearing aids being updated periodically in future as it becomes increasingly sophisticated.
Moreover, this capability won't apply only to hearing aids.
Schneider said dspfactory is also working, for example, on miniature digital recording and telecommunications applications.
Vik Kirsch is a Mercury reporter who writes this column every Wednesday. He can be reached at 822-4310, ext. 276 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Uniform subject(s): Computer and electronics industries; Telecommunications
Length: Medium, 510 words
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