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Smartphone App Opens New World Of Hearing

Engineering Hope: Smartphone App Opens New World Of HearingShelley Kofler, KERA News 10/13/11

DALLAS, TX (KERA) - Imagine walking into a room with so many loud voices you can't understand any of them. Then you activate your smartphone app and you clearly understand the conversation you want to hear. That technology is already being tested in clinical trials at the University of Texas at Dallas. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports on how it's helping cochlear implant patients hear the world around them.

A university cafeteria is a noisy place. Students are ordering lunch. Cashiers are ringing up bills. Music is playing on a laptop and there are dozens of conversations.

Most of us can screen out the unwanted noise and focus on what we want to hear. But 78-year old John Ayers can't do that. He hears all those sounds at once.

Ayers: I hear 50 to 75 people talking. I don't know what they're saying.

Ayers is deaf. He lost his hearing after he contracted a virus seven years ago and was fitted with cochlear implants which do the work of his damaged ears. Devices attached to his outer ears now gather and transmit sound to implants in his inner ears. But the implants can only collect a limited amount of audio information. In the cafeteria Ayers is bombarded with too much.

Loizou: (Cochlear implant users) are not able to tease the words apart and they really struggle in noisy situations.

Dr. Philip Loizou is an electrical engineer, and the director of the Cochlear Implant Lab at the University of Texas at Dallas. For years he's been trying to improve the hearing of implant users by developing computer programs that will sample sound in a loud environment then screen out the distortion.

But it wasn't practical for implant users to carry a computer as they moved from place to place.

The breakthrough came with palm-sized smartphones, mobile computers you can take anywhere.

Now in the UTD lab Loizou's research assistant, Hussnain Ali is helping to perfect a sophisticated smartphone program.

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