Mind Reading Hearing Aids?

Connecting your hearing aids and your brain.

What’s going on between your ears when you’re losing your hearing? Emerging research is beginning to give us some revealing, and disturbing answers about brain function and hearing loss.  But it also offers some hope.

Credit: Anu Sharma

First the bad news:  Take a look at this picture.

On the left, is the brain of a person with normal hearing and the areas that process sound are lit up as they should be.  But on the right is the brain of a person with mild hearing loss.  As you can see there’s less activity and what there is has shifted to other areas. Continue reading “Mind Reading Hearing Aids?”

The Future of Lip Reading

Will your next hearing aids have cameras? New research on lip reading by artificial intelligence suggests that, and more is on the way.

“Read my lips.”  That’s a lot easier said than done.  It’s a difficult skill to master in part because only about 30% of speech is considered “visible”. Even the best lip readers can only understand somewhere between 40% and 60%, and those figures are open to question.

Put another way, it means that about half the time they are wrong.  A point illustrated by an episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry is dating a deaf woman who relies on lip reading.  He asks her out, and offers to pick her up, “How about six?”.  She looks angry, offended and then leaves.  Jerry discovers later that she thought he had said “sex” instead of “six”.

Now comes news that the University of Oxford in partnership with Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence program has come up with a system that may help clear up the confusion.

Their AI system was taught to lip read using some 5,000 hours of BBC television clips.  The system scanned people’s lips learning to read them, and it got better and better at it.  In fact, the AI correctly “read” about 47% of what was being said without making a mistake.  By comparison human lip readers barely managed to get 12% right.

You can try it yourself.  Here is one of the silent BBC clips.

Courtesy: Oxford
Courtesy: Oxford

The AI scanned inside the red square and produced these captions.

Courtesy: Oxford
Courtesy: Oxford

It’s a breakthrough that opens up some intriguing possibilities according to another team of researchers at Oxford who are working on a similar system called LipNet.

‘Machine lip readers have enormous practical potential, with applications in improved hearing aids, silent dictation in public spaces, covert conversations, speech recognition in noisy environments, biometric identification, and silent-movie processing.’ -LipNet Research Report

By parsing that statement you can imagine a few scenarios:  One day you may be able to look at your phone and mouth a command to Siri without speaking.  Or you might point your phone’s camera at someone in a noisy room, and have what they are saying dictated directly into your hearing aids via bluetooth.

More ominously it may offer new secret surveillance tools that can “listen” in on distant conversations.  Combine that with facial recognition software and you have a great plot twist in a spy thriller.

In the meantime, a few tips on lip reading.  Actually, the correct term these days is “speech reading” because it involves reading not just lips but facial expressions and gestures.

Anyone with hearing loss is already something of a speech reader since your brain is constantly searching for clues about what is being said.  Your may notice how much easier it is to understand someone if they are facing you directly and in a well lit space.

So to a large extent it’s intuitive but it’s also a skill that can be improved. For online training, try Lipreading.org.



Apple’s Agenda

Your hearing aids and your phone. Apple and Android are making the connection.

On October 27, 2016 Apple threw the switch on its new “accessibility” website.  In fact, it was the first item on the agenda for CEO Tim Cook’s presentation.  Of particular interest to those of us with hearing loss is the section on bluetooth connectivity between iphones and hearing aids.

This technology has proven indispensable to me.

(For more on how it’s changed my life see my recent review of the Oticon OPN)

Iphones have built-in software that uses bluetooth to send sound directly to your hearing aids. The sounds around you are then automatically lowered, and the sound from your phone is adjusted by your hearing aids to deliver the audio it has been programmed for to compensate for your hearing loss.

The result is much clearer sounding phone calls, music and alerts.

At last count, about 44 models of hearing aids from various manufacturers have bluetooth capability and are compatible with iphone.

Hearing aid makers also offer their own free iphone apps which let you control your hearing aid settings, such as the volume, using your phone.  You can also check your battery levels.

One very cool feature is called “listen live”, which pipes the sound from the phone’s mic into your hearing aids.  That can be a handy option as this new video from Apple demonstrates.

Apple “Live Listen” video

For more on how it all works check out:

Connecting Hearing Aids

For those of you with Android phones, the story is a little more complicated since there is such a great variety of manufacturers.  The best advice is to check out the website of your hearing aid maker and see if their app is compatible with your phone.


Steampunk Hearing Aid Art

“Steampunk is a joyous fantasy of the past, allowing us to revel in a nostalgia for what never was. – George Mann

Steampunk is a genre of art that’s best described as a fusion of 19th Century technology, retro-futuristic design, Victorian fashion, science fiction and history that never was.

"The Telectroscope" at London's City Hall
“The Telectroscope” at London’s City Hall

Examples of its influence can be seen in movies such as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, “Mad Max” and “The Wild, Wild West”, and in art installations such as Paul St. George’s “Telectroscope”.


Paris Metro Station
Paris Metro Station

Steampunk also inspires architecture as passengers on the Paris Metro may notice.  And in the fashion world steampunk has emerged as a kind of gothic-punk blend.

A few artists and craftspeople have produced whimsical steampunk hearing aids.  With a few rare exceptions they don’t actually work so they’re more form than function.

Here’s a sampling:

  • "I made this out of a bunch of watch parts my grandfather had (he was a watchmaker)" - Wednesday Apple

A Deaf Man in Paris

A rendezvous with one of the world’s leading geneticists who first identified the hereditary causes of hearing loss.

My French is bad, and my hearing is even worse.  Two good reasons why I didn’t understand what the waiter was asking. So I fessed up.

A cliche shot of me
A cliche shot of me

“Pardonnez-moi, je suis un peu sourd.”  (Pardon me, I am a little deaf)  Second time around I understood, mainly because he was pointing at my empty glass. He was asking if I wanted another.  “Oui”.

Of course the fine wine is a great reason to visit Paris but I had another mission.

Continue reading “A Deaf Man in Paris”

Now Playing: “Closed Captions”

Having trouble hearing dialogue in movies theatres?
Try this great option.

I went to see “Bridget Jones’s Baby” the other day (don’t ask) and it was a very frustrating experience.  Although Renée Zellweger was as adorable as ever,  I could only make out less than half of what she said.

"What the hell is she saying?"
“What the hell is she saying?”

Her faux English accent didn’t help, and a soundtrack layered with music buried a lot of the dialogue.

But the rest of the audience seemed to be laughing on cue so the issue was obviously my hearing loss.  Even with the best hearing aids many of us struggle to hear dialogue in movie theatres.  There’s no point in complaining, “the actors are mumbling” or “the soundtrack mix is so muddy”. Face it.  It’s your hearing.

But then I discovered what I can only call the cinema world’s best kept secret.  It’s called the CaptiView system and it offers discreet, easy to read captions (or subtitles if you prefer) right there in any seat in the house. Continue reading “Now Playing: “Closed Captions””

Oticon’s New Opn Hearing Aids Reviewed

(Including a sneaky tip on how to use them to spy on your friends and family.)

My hearing is fading but my hopes are rising.  One reason I write this blog is because it enables me to keep up with the rapidly emerging technologies that hopefully will keep me one step ahead of the decline.

So when the venerable Danish company Oticon released its new Opn (pronounced “open”) I was intrigued. Continue reading “Oticon’s New Opn Hearing Aids Reviewed”

Better Microphones for Better Hearing Aids

“MEMS microphones have the potential of providing significant performance improvements in hearing aids”

There’s nothing more frustrating to me than trying to decipher speech in a place where my hearing aids are overwhelmed by the noisy hubbub in the background.  A party or a crowded restaurant are two vexing examples.

I am not alone since it’s the number one complaint of hearing aid users.  Continue reading “Better Microphones for Better Hearing Aids”

The Quest for a Cure

Will there ever be a treatment for hearing loss? A drug perhaps or some genetic wizardry? I spoke with a scientist who has devoted his career to the research necessary to answer those questions.

I want a life without hearing aids. But I can’t wind back the clock, and today there’s no alternative because there’s no cure and no biological treatment available for sensorineural hearing loss.

But there are glimmers of hope. Scientists around the world are working on it, and one of the best is here in Toronto.

Dr. Alain Dabdoub has the only lab in Canada that’s doing the pure research necessary to understand how our hearing develops and functions on a cellular level. He’s doing the spade work that may one day reveal possible treatments.

He graciously allowed me, and my trusty iphone, into his lab at the Sunnybrook Research Institute to ask him a few simple questions.