These glasses help you see better and hear better
As you approach your 60s, it can be nearly impossible to find a cafe or restaurant where you can meet people and hear what they have to say.
Tom Austad experienced exactly that when he went to a bar with colleagues in London in 2017.
“We sat around a table in a noisy room. Two of those I dated took their hearing aids off,” he says.
Colleagues explained that they couldn’t hear any of the conversations around the table. They could, however, hear very well the clinking of the glasses and the voices behind them. The hearing aid picked up all the noise and it became impossible to distinguish sounds from each other.
However, none of them could explain why it worked that way.
pitched an idea
Austad started asking people around him why sounds are perceived that way by people who use hearing aids, but he didn’t get enough answers.
Then he chose to contact an audiologist, who explained to him how our hearing works. The problem became clearer.
Based on these conversations, Austad asked the question: why are microphones placed behind the ear in a hearing aid, when what you want to hear is almost always in front of you? Can we do something about this?
I’m ashamed to wear hearing aids
In her conversations with people about hearing aids, Austad also discovered something else: many find it inconvenient to use hearing aids.
Austad had access to a survey by the market analysis agency Opinion. They had asked a representative sample of the Norwegian population how they felt about wearing glasses compared to how they felt about wearing hearing aids.
“People feel wearing glasses almost like wearing jewelry. They often have several pairs to choose from,” he says.
The use of a hearing aid, on the other hand, was perceived in a completely different way.
“We perceive those who use hearing aids as elderly people. And we talk to them differently because we can see that they have bad hearing,” says Austad.
Trial glasses constructed from plywood
Based on the knowledge he had accumulated, the entrepreneur set out to manufacture a pair of plywood glasses.
The first prototype was one meter long. He placed 16 microphones there.
The first year he sat at the mixing desk and tried different combinations of microphones with different setups.
Four years later, using technology from the hi-fi industry, he developed a full-size prototype. The prototype was developed in collaboration with investors and several hired specialists.
The camera finds the sound
Using an algorithm they developed themselves, together they were able to distinguish voices from noise.
This means that the person wearing the glasses mainly hears the voice of the caller, while other background noises are muffled.
The glasses also have an HD camera that captures faces. When you watch someone speak, the algorithm uses the camera to determine where the sound is coming from. This is how the algorithm determines what needs to be amplified and what needs to be quieted.
The glasses also have a feature that allows you to adjust where the sound should be picked up from. It is useful, for example, when you are driving a car and want to hear what the passenger in the car is saying.
If you don’t need sound, for example when you sit down to read a book, it falls asleep. When someone speaks to you, the sound is activated again. The app supplied with the glasses can also be used to make adjustments.
Nerve cells gone for good
What usually happens with hearing loss is that the nerve cells in the cochlea of our ear become “worn out”, explains Ole Tvete. He is a pioneer in the field of hearing and worked in the ear, nose and throat department of Oslo University Hospital for many years, although he is now retired.
Nerve cells for high-pitched sounds are the most worn out.
This usually happens because of age. However, hearing loss can also be a side effect of certain medications or exposure to very loud noise.
It is therefore the high-pitched sounds that must be amplified. The nerve cells of low sounds are largely preserved.
Unfortunately, when nerve cells break down, they cannot be saved.
“You can’t get normal hearing back with just any help, but you can improve it,” says Tvete.
Better than a hearing aid
A normal hearing aid amplifies high-pitched sounds, while low-pitched sounds enter the ear directly through a vented earplug or a completely open solution.
This provides a good solution in a quiet environment. In situations where there is noise, however, it becomes more difficult to understand speech.
“Our hearing glasses with 16 microphones and a camera are a good attempt to improve the signal-to-noise ratio for these people. The sound is better than with normal hearing aids in noisy situations,” says Tvete.
The company’s plan is to soon be able to sell its first pair of hearing aid glasses on the market.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.