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January 15, 2003

Bionic ear’ invention from CPS engineer wins accolade

From: Business Weekly, UK - 15 Jan 2003

A development engineer who works for Cambridge Positioning Systems has won a young inventor’s award for a ‘bionic ear’ that could allow profoundly deaf children to hear music.

Dr Robert Fearn developed the software that improves sound quality in cochlear implants worn by deaf people to hear speech.

The invention came as a result of his doctoral degree research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

His multi-rate cochlear simulation – a bionic ear with pitch – has won a silver award in the Far Eastern Economic Review’s annual Young Investors Awards.

The pioneering software also earned him a trip to California, $5,000 worth of computer equipment and a $5,000 research grant for his university.

Dr Fearn, who was brought up in rural New South Wales, was a child prodigy as a trumpeter.

He says that constant music lessons and an early love of melodies inspired his work in recapturing music for adults with hearing loss.

His research has improved the sound quality in existing cochlear implants, allowing wearers to better hear pitch.

Still in its trial phase but already patented, the software decodes music and sends digital signals to the 22 electrodes along the array inside the cochlea.

One of Dr Fearn’s degree supervisors, Joe Wolfe, explained: “Music and speech carry information in different ways.

“In music, you must know the pitch of a note accurately and there may be several notes heard simultaneously.

“The information in speech is carried in broad bands of high frequencies.”

Western languages, for example, use a limited range of tones and the tone, or pitch, carries very little of the meaning of what is being said.

Acoustic expert Neville Fletcher said the implant as it stood captured speech and with Dr Fearn’s work would capture music.

“People can hear everything in between, including tonal languages,” he said.

Dr Fearn added: “People with cochlear implants can hear speech well but music is harsh.

“Rhythm can be detected but harmony and melodies are lost because the translations of sound into pulses was not optimised for music.”

One volunteer said that listening to music while wearing a cochlear implant was like the sound of cellophane being screwed up.

Wearers also found it difficult to hear speech if music was playing. And a meal at a restaurant could be a nightmare - the racket of competing speech and music would drive the wearer home.

Dr Fearn said: “Once people can hear speech they acknowledge that it is a good part of life.

“The next biggest request is to hear music. This is especially true of young people who are afraid to go out to meet friends because background music is played everywhere and obscures speech.”

Dr Fearn works in CPS’ product development team, where he develops software used to locate mobile phone users in emergency call situations.

CPS is the key enabler for high accuracy location in the GSM wireless world. Technology trials and deployments are currently underway in the US, Europe and the Asia Pacific region.

© 2003 Business Weekly