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March 29, 2004

Joyful noise

From: Rocky Mountain News, CO - Mar 29, 2004

Startup peddles tiny technology to boost sound clarity for the hearing impaired

By Roger Fillion, Rocky Mountain News
March 29, 2004

As an 8-year-old in a small Kansas town, Jo Waldron sensed immediately a balloon she had found would prove fateful in her life.

Indeed. The bright red balloon would later inspire a new technology invented to help people suffering from hearing loss. Waldron, 53, was born profoundly deaf.

She stooped down to scoop up that balloon while attending a traveling carnival in her hometown of Larned, Kan. Suddenly, the young girl felt sound vibrations the balloon was picking up.

"I could feel a car driving by. I could feel people talk. I could feel people yell. I could feel the machinery going on the rides," Waldron recalled.

Today, Waldron is CEO of Able Planet Inc.

The Fort Collins startup is marketing a patent- pending technology for people with moderate to profound hearing loss. It allows them to use telephones, computers and other electronic devices much more easily. The Hyatt hotel chain is among those installing the technology.

The microtechnology Waldron and inventor Joan Burleigh developed makes use of sound vibrations - like those the balloon conducted.

The proprietary technology - about the size of a grain of rice - is a new method for delivering spoken words and sounds to a user's ear, according to Waldron. It boosts the clarity of words and sounds. And users don't necessarily need a hearing aid.

The invention also gets around the buzzing or beeping problem some hearing-aid wearers encounter when they're near electronic devices - devices ranging from computers and cell phones, to electronic surveillance systems and airport arrival/departure monitors.

Waldron, in fact, won't walk into a Tiffany & Co. store. She likes jewelry; that's not the problem.

The problem: She wears earrings, rings and bracelets, and the upscale jeweler's stores make her ears buzz.


"I will never set foot in Tiffany's. Their security interferes with my hearing aid the minute I open the door," said Waldron, a disability rights advocate.

The noise stems from electromagnetic interference that can play havoc with a hearing aid.

Able Planet's technology gets around the buzzing and beeping by transmitting sound waves mechanically - without any electromagnetic properties.

"It's a new delivery system to the human ear," said Waldron, who has worked more than 25 years in aerospace and other industries. "It not only boosts the clarity, it enhances the clarity."

Today, Waldron can listen to her favorite oldies on an MP3 player. Carrying on a phone conversation is no longer a stressful ordeal. What's more, that annoying buzzing won't interfere with those activities if she's near, say, a computer or a cell phone.

Able Planet's technology can be embedded in standard phones or pay phones, as well as hands-free headsets such as those used with cell phones, multimedia computers, MP3 players, and the like.

What drove Waldron to invent the technology?

Desperation, as she put it. "I wanted to hear like everybody else could."

As a child, Waldron was different. There there were no other deaf children in Larned, where Waldron grew up.

She wore a boxy hearing aid strapped to her chest. A cord tied the hearing aid to an ear device. Waldron also had polio as a 3-year-old, making it difficult for her to walk.

"It was very lonely. Most of the kids wouldn't come near me. I could see their parents telling them, 'Stay away from that kid. You might catch it,' " she recalled, referring to the deafness and the polio.

More recently, Waldron's hearing loss meant she couldn't listen to music on an MP3 player over ordinary headphones.

Phone conversations were a struggle. She had to guess what the other person was saying, based on the few words she understood. An older hearing-aid technology she invented was practically useless.

Her new invention changed that.

"With this technology, I'm the closest I can ever be to hearing like you hear," she said. "I don't have any guessing."

Seated at her kitchen table, Waldron spent more than a year working to assemble the technology.

She had to run back and forth to the manufacturer she was working with - Precision Inc., a Minneapolis company with a plant in Fort Collins.

"It was really coming up with the right set of components in creating the circuit," she recalled. "We played around with a bunch of different designs for way over a year."

Even small changes meant big performance differences. Then, one day in early 2003, Waldron knew she'd struck pay dirt: "I remember sitting there at my table saying, 'This has got to be it.' "

She and Burleigh, her partner, tested the technology on people. Waldron, for her part, put on a phone and a headset . . . and was thrilled.

Using the phone, she began talking giddily with everyone, from Burleigh to her grandchildren. "I had never heard like that before," she recalled.

According to Able Planet, more than 34 million people in the United States and 500 million worldwide suffer from mild to severe-to-profound hearing loss.

At Maple Grove Elementary School in Golden, the Southeast Denver Rotary Club has donated 10 headsets that use Able Planet's technology. The school offers a program for children in Jefferson County who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"It helps our kids hear things better," said Ari Goldberg, a speech and language pathologist at the school. This might include interactive computer programs, books on tape, or music.

He recounted a third-grader who was using the headset with computer software that teaches youngsters how to type on the computer.

The software has verbal instructions explaining what letters to type, and whether the kids have hit the right key. Out of nowhere, the third-grader shouted, " 'It said F!' " Goldberg recounted, explaining how the child was thrilled to understand what was spoken.

The technology is getting deployed.

Last June, Hyatt Hotels Corp. said it had installed it in almost 300 phones at Hyatt hotels in downtown Denver, the Tech Center and Beaver Creek. It also is committed to putting the device in new guest- room phones in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

And Able Planet recently teamed with two companies to embed the technology in phones that use voice- over-Internet-protocol technology. VoIP, as it is called, enables users to make and receive phone calls cheaper using a high-speed network instead of a traditional phone network.

The technology is available to consumers for $55.95 in a standard phone or $34.95 in a hands-free earphone for use with cell and cordless phones.

Looking ahead, Waldron is probing how to incorporate the technology into hearing aids, and has teamed with hearing-aid companies. That could help overcome one shortfall in the technology, which works only with a phone or headset.

"That's the only problem with this technology so far," Waldron said. "When it's all said and done, I'm a still a person who is deaf when I hang up. I don't want to be there anymore."

Jo Waldron and Able Planet at a glance

Waldron, 53, deaf since birth, is one of the nation's leading advocates for the disabled. She co-invented the Able Planet micro-technology, which gives people with mild to profound hearing loss the opportunity to clearly access telecommunications and other communications devices.

• Position: CEO, Able Planet Inc., of Fort Collins

• Company mission: To develop multiple technologies to benefit people with different disabilities, providing equal access and opportunity in employment, education, travel, entertainment and more.

• Technology: Developed with audiologist Dr. Joan Burleigh, the technology interacts with the telephone coil in common hearing aids to capture audio signals from consumer electronic devices. The device is so small - about 1 mm - that it fits inside standard telephones or hands-free headsets. or 303-892-2467

Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.