Tom Ostad was sitting in a bar in London in 2017. They were eight people gathered around a table in a noisy room. Two of them used hearing aids. They chose to take it off. Ustad asked why.
The answer was that in such a noisy environment, hearing was more troublesome than helpful. The devices amplify everything that is going on in the room, which in any case makes it difficult to perceive what is being said.
That night was the seed for the Oculaudio, a pair of glasses that Austad believes has the potential to revolutionize assistive devices for people with hearing impairments.
The problem has been known for 40 years. Hearing aids have two microphones located behind the ear. Why, when what you want to hear is most likely right in front of you? I haven’t received any answer other than that it’s just about the way the product is and that the microphones have to be placed somewhere, he says.
And he adds, it’s not as bad as it might seem. The sound is manipulated, but you miss many opportunities when the microphones are put into place.
Ostad says he’s delved into the problem, and the solution is a pair of glasses — with a high-resolution camera, 16 microphones and a self-developing algorithm.
The idea is that the microphones pick up the sound around the room, while the camera picks up the faces. When the user looks at a person speaking, the algorithm will use the camera to detect where the sound is coming from, what should be amplified and what should be attenuated.
They are almost like smartphones, they can “zoom in” the sound when shooting. This is signal processing called acoustic “beam shaping”. The microphones pick up sound 360 degrees around the user and the beam can be shaped in two planes.
— Ostand explains that it provides a completely different starting point for amplifying the single sound in the room you want to hear.
Microphones are located on the front of the glasses and along the sides of the rails. All sound processing is done in the glasses themselves. The glasses also have an accelerometer that tracks the user’s head movements. This ensures that the user can move their head without the speaker getting out of focus.
can be customized
Not all situations are where you pick out the voice of one person speaking. It would be impractical in a place like a pub in London, where several people sit together and talk.
So the user must be able to adjust the amplitude of the sound capture, by increasing the angle of the sound being amplified. It is also possible to put the glasses in an adaptive mode, allowing the user to make a head movement to determine the size of the area to focus on.
The glasses should be able to fall asleep automatically. Ustad explains that you won’t need an active hearing aid if you, for example, are sitting still and reading a book. Once inactive, it is only reactivated when the user raises their head or if the algorithm notices someone speaking.
The hardware inside the cups is ready on the shelf. These are the algorithms developed by the company. They have applied for four patents relating to these, which will be published in mid-2022 if granted. This is also where the work will be laid next, before the product is ready for the market.
The final product should consist of an eyeglass case with a built-in battery bank that charges the glasses when not in use. Battery life should be between 8 to 14 hours between each charge, depending on usage.
Oculaudio has developed a prototype that is now being shown to investors with the goal of developing it into a commercial product.
– They tried to make hearing glasses before, but then they just transferred the technology of hearing aids that are in the glasses. Now the technology is completely different. We use microphone technology from the hi-fi industry and get a much better sound than what you get in hearing aids today, says Ostad.
Today’s hearing aids operate at low power, as the battery should last a long time. It gives poor sound quality, according to Austad. The glasses are fitted with two energy-rich lithium-ion batteries in the bars of the glasses, which provide a completely different starting point for sound processing.
The audio itself is delivered via wireless Bluetooth earbuds. The challenge with this is that it often produces a delayed sound. In many applications, this delay can be compensated for, but when the sound reaches the ear in real time, it will not be so easy. Austad says they have worked to reduce the delay to eight milliseconds. He explains that in practice, it provides real-time transmission.
Like a normal pair of glasses
By itself, cramming sensors, processors, and microphones into something resembling glasses might not be much of a problem. In practice, people have often previously ended up with something that does not look like an ordinary pair of glasses, as in the case of Google Glass.
For Oculaudio, it is important that the glasses look like regular glasses. This will ensure collaboration with Norwegian and international eyewear designers.
Ustad thinks this is important. Because while glasses are often a fashion item, hearing aids are the opposite. According to a market analysis by Oculaudio, 10 percent of all hearing aids distributed end up in the drawer.
According to the same study, decorative items such as glasses do not have a long life.
The glasses live about three years. Ustad says you are tired of designing and buying new designs.
Will be launched in 2023
So they set up a three-year economic life. Then the economy as a whole will also be better than the current hearing aids. In general, the price during this period will be 30 to 50 percent lower, he believes.
The glasses are funded with an entry price and then a three-year subscription. This subscription is required to access the features of the app.
Oculaudio plans to launch the product commercially during the first quarter of 2023. Major user testing will take place during the second half of 2022. So far, they have an agreement with 150 users for testing.
We also have a dedicated team of audio and material experts. He says glasses would also be a good addition to cochlear implants.
This article was first published in TU Magazine No. 11/2021
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