New UI hearing aid technology allows users to connect to wireless devices

Two University of Iowa researchers have partnered with Gallaudet University to expand the effectiveness of hearing aids through a working grant.


Thomas A. Stewart

The Old Capital is seen on Wednesday, October 17, 2018.

Chloe O'Connor, News Reporter

Two University of Iowa researchers and their colleagues at Gallaudet University received a grant to study the possible creation of smart hearing aids that can be integrated into what they call a “wireless ecosystem.”

The five-year grant is one part of a larger project by the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, led by Christian Vogler. Vogler is a professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University — the nation’s preeminent deaf university.

“… Currently, if you are looking at the hearing aid technology, hearing aid platforms are operating in isolation,” said Octav Chipara, UI associate professor and researcher.

According to numbers from Chipara and UI Associate Professor and researcher Yu-Hsiang Wu, current hearing aids are inadequate. So much so that as many as 50 percent of hearing aid users do not use their hearing aids, and 40 percent of those who do report dissatisfaction with them.

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Chipara said the pair’s research will utilize cloud services such as Amazon AWS and edge devices such as NVIDEA Jetson to better the system that hearing aids run on. The goal would be to create a hearing aid that would process and amplify sound within the device, and it would send an alert from a smart device to the hearing aid when sound occurs.

“Currently, hearing aids can connect to some devices like smartphones, but all the signal processing of the sounds is done within the hearing aid itself,” Wu said. “This grant will help us develop a tool kit for our research and better the use of Edge and Cloud resources to make a better hearing aid.”

The researchers said their new hearing aid would allow for users to hear more clearly in noisy environments due to the greater Cloud or Edge processing power at its disposal.

“[Chipara] was a partner on the previous iteration of this grant from 2014 to 2019,” Vogler said. “He did a project on collecting real-world data from hearing aids and smartphones. We were happy with his work, and it gave him the experience for the current project. The current one is a logical step up.”

Vogler said he was excited by the prospect of Chipara and Wu’s research, because current hearing devices are limited by both size and processing power.

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“I’d say the primary impact is much improved ability to communicate through listening,” Vogler said. “You can do all kinds of advanced audio processing if you don’t have to worry about power and limited computing in hearing aids.”

UI American Sign Language Undergraduate program Director Bob Vizzini said in an email to The Daily Iowan that he’s not sure how these new hearing aids could affect the deaf and hard of hearing communities — especially as a deaf person himself who does not use any hearing aid or assistant devices.

“We are happy living without the sense of sound. Not all deaf or hard of hearing people are the same,” Vizzini said. “Many of them wish they had the ability to hear like the general population … so this kind of work may benefit them. It can contribute to a portion of deaf/hard of hearing people.”

These hearing aids will allow users to hear a better quality of sound than has ever been possible before, Wu said.

“It’s not about inventing a new hearing aids, but more about opening the door for hearing aids to transcend their limitations,” Vogler said.