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Electrical engineering advances hold hope for the hard of hearing

April 22, 2008

Hearing could be improved for the approximately 28 million Americans who suffer from hearing loss if researchers in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering succeed in their efforts to improve hearing-aid technology.

Department of Electrical Engineering professor Sayfe Kiaei and associate professors Bertan Bakkaloglu, Junseok Chae, and Rudy Diaz, have been awarded a $385,000 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop an advanced hearing aid through their work in ASU’s Connection One center, part of an NSF industry-university research consortium.

The project seeks to address the common complaints of hearing-aid users.

“People with hearing aids in crowded rooms or noisy environments such as cars have a hard time figuring out who is saying what,” Bakkaloglu explains.

The goal is to develop the first inner ear canal hearing aid using two microphones in each ear. This makes it easier for the user to tell where sounds are coming from by mimicking natural hearing patterns.

“The biggest challenge in directionality is that those two microphones should have the exact same sensitivity. And like most things in life, no two things match 100 percent,” Bakkaloglu says. “To overcome the matching problem is the toughest challenge.”

This challenge falls to Chae, the team’s microphone and loudspeaker expert. He has developed a potential solution using the Micro Electro Mechanical System, in which he will exactly match the hearing aid microphones themselves, and not just the electronics.

“The way people do it now to generate the directional microphones is not to match the microphone itself, but to manipulate the electronics to make it look like it’s matched,” Chae says.

Using an electrical matching method severely shortens the battery life, forcing the patient to recharge hearing aid batteries every few hours. Chae says this isn’t really practical for hearing-aid users because they need something more environmentally adaptable.

“My technology, if it is successful, is going to be adaptively changing the matching performance based upon the environment. So once the microphones are matched, it’s going to change and track that matched performance as the environment changes,” Chae says. “So you don’t need to re-tweak it.”

The team recently began receiving funds from the NSF’s Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) program to be distributed over three years. The ASU researchers have partnered with Symphony Acoustics Inc., a microphone and sensor manufacturer, which they hope will carry the hearing aid to the market once it’s developed.

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