New Research Center Has Wild Plans for the Future of Hearing Assistance

New Research Center Has Wild Plans for the Future of Hearing Assistance

New research center promises science fiction-like help for the hearing impaired with a combination of gadgets, advanced signal processing and wireless technology. Danish hearing aid pioneer Oticon and Aalborg University’s Department of Electronic Systems are behind the venture with support from the Oticon Foundation.

The initiative will also benefit the sound processing industry in general and educate more engineers in the field. But the main ambition is to make an enormous difference in the everyday life of the hearing impaired in the next 5 to 10 years.

- The technological landscape is changing rapidly, allowing for an entire range of radically improved assistive devices for the hearing impaired that differ significantly from the current solutions, says Jan Østergaard, Associate Professor, Department of Electronic Systems, who will be the director of the new center CASPR (Centre for Acoustic Signal Processing Research) at Aalborg University.

Traditionally, hearing aids consist of a microphone that captures sound and speech from the surroundings, which is then enhanced and amplified so that the user can hear them. The future’s more effective solution will be a sophisticated interplay between different devices and sensors that communicate with each other through wireless technology and automatically adjust according to the user's needs in a given situation.

- The hearing aid of the future will exchange information with other electronic devices, such as smartphones, smart watches and computers, to a much greater degree than today. This means that we can also use the sensors and processing power of these external devices. We envisage that the future hearing aid system utilizes all available resources, and, for example at a meeting, can automatically transfer sound from a smartphone or laptop that happens to be on the table in front of the speaker so that the user gets a clean signal without background noise or reverberation directly in the ears, explains Jan Østergaard.

Better algorithms and body signals

The center will also work on improving the algorithms that analyze the sound and isolate the important parts based on an assessment of what is relevant to the user in a given situation. A third focus will be to take advantage of new sensor technologies to read user needs based on the body's signals. This can be done, for example, based on heart sounds and the pulse as well as by detecting movement patterns and the direction of the head with an accelerometer and gyroscope also used by modern smartphones.

- Ultimately this can lead to a completely new type of solution that works with the user and adjusts itself according to his/her needs, says  Zheng-Hua Tan, Associate Professor, Department of Electronic Systems, who is part of the center’s management team, as is Jesper Jensen, Senior Researcher, who since 2013 has divided his time between Oticon's development department and a part-time professor position at Aalborg University. Oticon is already working with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and other research institutions; the new center at Aalborg University complements an area of rapid development.

- When it comes to statistical signal processing the research group in Aalborg is a leader in both Denmark and Europe. In order to achieve the objectives we are talking about here, we need specialized knowledge in the field. This is the key component in future hearing aid solutions, whether it is to isolate the voice signal from a noisy background via wireless microphones or to present it in the ears of a hearing aid user so it is perceived in the best possible way, says Jesper Jensen.

The technologies are not only relevant in the hearing aid industry. Research breakthroughs will also be useful for companies that deal with sound technology, for example, for headphones, teleconferences and measuring equipment. Aalborg University and Oticon are thus open to including multiple partners in the center over time. New knowledge is a guaranteed benefit; new people can be another.

- While intensifying our research in this area, we also aim to train several engineers and researchers so that they acquire a background that matches the needs of the sound processing and hearing aid industries, says Jan Østergaard, director of the center.

Facts

  • CASPR (Centre for Acoustic Signal Processing Research) at Aalborg University has secured a budget of just over DKK 20 million over the next five years, thanks to support from the Oticon Foundation, among others.
  • The center is founded by Oticon A/S and Aalborg University’s Department of Electronic Systems. CASPR will be anchored in the section for Signal and Information Processing (SIP).
  • The center's mission is to conduct research and teaching on the bachelor’s, master’s, PhD and postdoctoral level in scientific disciplines supporting future statistical signal processing in concepts for hearing assistive devices as well as to disseminate research results and their applications to the sound processing industry and research community.

Further information

  • Jan Østergaard, Associate Professor, (Center Director), AAU, Tel.: +45 9940 8693. Jan Østergaard has been at AAU for eight years. He received his PhD from Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. He was a postdoc at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. His background is in statistical signal processing and information and communication technology.
  • Jesper Jensen, Professor, AAU/Oticon A/S, Tel.: +45 9940 8630. Jesper Jensen has nine years of experience at Oticon; prior to that he was at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, for seven years. He received his PhD from Aalborg University. His area of expertise is statistical signal processing for hearing assistive devices and signal processing solutions that work in conjunction with the listener's own auditory system.
  • Zheng-Hua Tan, Associate Professor, AAU, Tel.: +45 9940 8686. Zheng-Hua Tan has been at AAU for 15 years. He has also been affiliated with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, where he received his PhD; Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; and MIT in the US. His background is in machine learning with a focus on speech applications, including deep neural networks for speech extraction and speech recognition.
  • Press contact: Carsten Nielsen, AAU, Mobile +45 2340 6554.

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