New hearing aid sounds good for uni team

Local | Carain Yeung 19 Dec 2016

A hearing aid built with an intelligent audio separation function to boost performance by 10 times has been developed.

The device will be marketed in six to nine months at just US$80 (HK$624), one-tenth the price of similar products in the market, said Hong Kong University of Science and Technology developers.

Statistics show 93 percent of the population suffering from hearing impairment in China are not using hearing aids, mainly because existing ones amplify all signals including background noise.

Incus Co Ltd, an HKUST technology start-up, successfully developed intelligent audio separation systems, which can boost hearing aid performance 10 times by separating background noises from target signal effectively.

The start-up was founded by Richard So Hau-yue, a professor in the university's industrial engineering and logistics management department, and his student Calvin Zhang Jiangang, a fresh graduate of the master's program in technology leadership and entrepreneurship.

So, an expert in audiology and virtual reality, explained that human brains can process different sounds and noises at the same time, and he has been studying how to imitate the functions of the ears and the auditory cortex in the brain with computer systems.

So said he came up with ideas and equations to solve the technical challenge four years ago, and Zhang was his first student who could solve them. The team then built its own hearing aid system, comprising a mobile app and ear buds. Target signals and background noises are separated into different channels, and the user could select the channel they wish to hear with the app.

"Normal hearing aids, not the most inexpensive ones, divide the audio frequency into high or low ones, and amplify those that sound like human voices," So said.

He said the high-end ones allow the user to identify from which directions the sounds come from.

So, demonstrating to reporters, said his team's creation can identify the target signal - even when more than one person is speaking at the same time.

Zhang said his team will also apply an innovative sales model, promoting and selling the products online, which can reach a price reduction of up to 90 percent compared with existing products.

Consumers will first undergo hearing tests through a free mobile app and a customized trial before they decide if they want to buy the hearing aid.

Traditional sales model engage layers of businesses, and Zhang said this is what causes the hearing aids' prices to be marked up by about 70 percent.

The start-up has filed for patent and is seeking approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

So said the hearing aid will hopefully be marketed in six to nine months, and be only available for iPhone users.

The audio separation technology can also be applied to mobile phones, walkie-talkies, and machines that come with speech recognition functions.

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