One company is leading the way in improving audio access for the hearing impaired
You really want to hear that YouTube content – the life hack that’s going to change everything. But it was recorded badly, the publisher hasn’t mixed it well, and you just can’t hear exactly what your favourite guru is saying. You turn up your iPhone, but Apple has designed the loudness settings to keep you from shattering your eardrums. Then, of course, there are no video subtitles. So, you watch it at your desktop computer with the BIG SPEAKERS and see how that goes. It’s really irritating when that happens. But if you’re hard of hearing, this is what a regular day on the internet can be like. Fortunately, there are hearing assistive devices making content more accessible. Audio communications company, Alango Technologies, is headquartered in Haifa, Israel, and has turned its focus to technologies improving access for the hearing impaired. The company’s BeHear ACCESS assistive hearing device was an honouree at the 2020 CES Innovation Awards. Their philosophy is that hearing impairment is a more universal phenomenon than most people readily admit, and use of hearing assistive technology should be as common as getting glasses. Accessing audio isn’t entirely a matter of loudness or frequency enhancement. Sometimes the speed of speech makes it difficult to understand for people with age-related hearing loss, but also those with cognitive disabilities or language barriers. Even those who need extra time to write down information as they hear it. One of Alango’s technologies, Easy Listen, slows down incoming speech in real time. “People with a hearing disability have difficulties listening to fast talkers and, eventually, at some age, all talkers seem fast,” explains Alango founder and CEO, Dr Alexander Goldin. “We can slow down speech and make it more intelligible. It’s a unique technology you cannot find today, even in expensive hearing aids.” Easy Listen was designed for older people, who may have dexterity problems, with large buttons and simple controls. PEOPLE WITH A HEARING DISABILITY HAVE DIFFICULTIES LISTENING TO FAST TALKERS AND, EVENTUALLY, AT SOME AGE, ALL TALKERS SEEMFAST
The company’s Easy Watch technology allows viewers to understand fast talkers on TV, movies and streaming video by dynamically and selectively slowing down both the audio and video streams. “One problem with hearing loss is that many people are not aware of having it,” says Goldin. “It takes, on average, seven years from the onset of the problem to the point where people become aware. And another three years when they start actually looking for help.” To shorten this time, Alango has developed a hearing assessment kiosk, which can be put in waiting rooms or pharmacies to assess hearing – then provide customised audio feedback to give people an experience of what they are missing. “Becoming aware of the problem is not enough to look for help. You need to know what you are missing. Hearing isn’t like vision – I can immediately understand that I can’t read a book or see a traffic sign. But if I don’t hear birds outside, they simply don’t exist for me. At our kiosk, we play video clips and allow people to switch the hearing amplification on and off.” Getting the right solution in compensating for hearing loss isn’t just a matter of increasing loudness. Most gradual hearing loss is selective along specific frequencies. Increasing loudness brings up other frequencies, which may allow a person to fill in the gaps of what they are not hearing, but those missing frequencies are still likely to remain vacant. Alango uses a technology called multi-channel dynamic range processing. This takes into account all parts of the auditory system and tries to make up for it using the frequencies a person is still able to hear. “Hearing loss cannot be compensated for completely. But we’re trying to get as close as possible.” Alango’s technologies are designed for TVs and technologies people use every day. They have begun conversations with tech manufacturers about how to best integrate these new assistive features more widely. Given the capabilities of most modern devices, we may eventually see smart devices taking into account that the ability to access video and audio is less consistent than we assume. A device integrated with its own hearing assessments – and automatic compensation for it – could be just around the corner.
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