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October 26, 2003

Digital technology breaks the sound barrier

From: Gizmo, Australia - Oct 26, 2003

Hearing impairment affects more people globally than any other medical condition. Around 15% of the world's population is affected by hearing impairment of some form, and this figure is growing as the population ages, life expectancy increases and noise pollution impairs the hearing of those who have not yet realised the damage they have done.

Addressing the issue of hearing impairment is key to enabling over 100 million people worldwide to lead active and fulfilling lives.

Fortunately, digital technology is offering solutions which analogue technology could not and the resultant benefits are being used in a host of ways which couldn’t be imagined just a few years ago.

Take ocean racing for example. When Team Alinghi won the America’s Cup earlier this year, it did so with a combination of highly advanced technologies serving almost every aspect of boat and team performance. The Swiss teeam evaluated every available technology in optimizing its performance and in the area of communications, it looked to Swiss hearing system designer Phonak to assist with communications, so that the 14 crew members could clearly hear the instructions of helmsman Russell Coutts over the wind, waves and attendant helicopters. Phonak applied its technology to ensure the high-tech hearing instruments worn by each crewmember received the commands with perfect sound quality.

There was a time not so long ago, when hearing-aids were simply amplifiers, and all noise was amplified and as hearing is a very individual experience, many people with hearing loss could not find a solution which suited them.

Not only does every hearing instrument wearer have a different type of hearing loss, they also have personal preferences for the way they like to hear sound in different acoustic environments. For example, many of Gizmo’s readers would describe the sound of a Harley Davidson as music, whilst many others would consider it an inappropriately loud and intrusive noice.

Noisy environments present the biggest challenge to the human ear. A perfectly functioning hearing system can filter out unwanted background noise in order to concentrate on a conversation. Those with a hearing loss do not have the same capacity and tend to avoid social situations that they find stressful and frustrating. As a result they become socially isolated.

An impaired hearing system has great difficulty in differentiating between male, female and children's voices, identifying musical instruments and recognising the emotional quality of speech. Words with a similar sound also become impossible to decipher such as "life" and "wife".

Although the impaired ear may be able to hear that someone is talking, it does not understand what is being said. A common result is confusing questions and statements. In response the person with impaired hearing often guesses what has been said or worse still, withdraws from conversation completely in order to avoid social embarrassment.

State-of-the-art digital (and other) technology has enabled the leading hearing system manufacturers to create hearing computers that imitate the functioning of healthy ears. These new hearing systems use microprocessors to continually analyse the acoustic environment and adjust to produce an ideal hearing situation for the individual wearer. Background noise can be filtered out so the precise origin of sound becomes clear and a rich, natural sound quality is produced. These hearing computers are complemented by FM (frequency modulation) accessories providing real lifestyle benefits and allow a hearing impaired person full reintegration into everyday life.

One such example of just how far digital hearing systems have come in the decade since they were introduced to the world, is the Phonak Perseo system, the world’s first hearing instrument that takes into account personal preferences.

For the wearers this means their hearing instruments react in line with their personal taste and not manufactures’ assumptions.

Before Perseo, hearing instruments always responded to a particular situation in exactly the same way, not providing any scope at all for individual preference. Perseo uses a new system called PersonalLogic to cater for personal needs and tastes. Instead of reacting automatically to environmental changes in the same way for all users, according to fixed factory settings, Perseo can be programmed to take into account individual wearer preferences. This new technology brings users considerable benefits. For example, two Perseo wearers, a kindergarten teacher and a man reading a newspaper, may be sitting on a park bench next to a noisy children’s playground. For the teacher hearing the children’s voices is crucial. For the person next to her the children’s voices are annoying background noise that he would like reduced. PersonalLogic can be programmed to respond accordingly. It is the key to giving every wearer the same level of listening pleasure and comfort in every situation. Perseo enables all users to hear sound their way, all of the time. Perseo also offers a range of instruments from completely-in-thecanal (CIC) models that sit invisibly inside the ear, in-the-ear (ITE) with dual-microphone as well as behind-the-ear (BTE) versions through to Behind-the-Ear (BTE) versions.

One of the benefits of using the Perseo system is that it comes with its own Swiss-watch, with some very major benefits – the watch enables the user to switch the sound filtering and amplification systems in the microprocessor so that it can be adjusted on-the-fly in a social setting with complete discretion.

© Gizmo 2003