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ATU550 – Signia Split Processing Hearing Technology with Brian Taylor

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest:

Brian Taylor Au.D – Senior Director of Audiology at Signia

www.signia.net

Stories:

Aesthetics Story: https://bit.ly/3lNRjtw

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—– Transcript Starts Here —-

Brian Taylor:
Hi, I’m Brian Taylor, Senior Director of Audiology at Signia. And this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello, and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana.

Josh Anderson:
Welcome to episode 550 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on December 10th, 2021. On today’s show. We’re super excited to have audiologist, Brian Taylor, from Signia on. And he’s here to tell us about some split processing hearing technology and just some of the amazing advances that have been made in hearing aid tech. We have a quick story about designing assistive technology that’s more aesthetically pleasing, giving folks more choices on the assistive technology they use. We thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to us today. Now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
Maybe you’re looking for some new podcast to listen to. Well, make sure to check out our sister podcast, Accessibility Minute, and ATFAQ, or Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions. If you’re super busy and don’t have time to listen to a full podcast, be sure to check out Accessibility Minute. Our one minute long podcast that gives you just a little taste of something assistive technology based so that you’re able to get your assistive technology fix without taking up the whole day. Hosted by Tracy Castillo, this show comes out weekly.

Josh Anderson:
Our other show is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions or ATFAQ. On Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, Brian Norton leads our panel of experts, including myself, Belva Smith and our own Tracy Castillo, as we try to answer your assistive technology questions. This show does rely on you, so we’re always looking for new questions, comments, or even your answers on assistive technology questions. So remember if you’re looking for more assistive technology podcasts to check out, you can check out our sister shows, Accessibility Minute and ATFAQ wherever you get your podcast, now including Spotify and Amazon Music.

Josh Anderson:
I found this story, and this is actually something that I’ve talked to users before kind of about, and it really talks about how a lot of things, prosthetics, different assistive technology devices, other things like that are much more function over form, if you will. They kind of accomplish a goal, but many of them look very, very industrial, very medical. There’s actually a quote in here where it says, not everybody wants everything plastic and beige. And it talks about some different stuff.

Josh Anderson:
It talks about utensils, so some different things that folks may use to be able to access things in the kitchen. It talks about EYRA, E-Y-R-A, which is a company that makes a different kind of kitchen utensils for folks with different kind of grip strength and things like that. But just making sure they’re not making just the basic kind of ugly devices, but actually making something that’s useful and has a good form factor and looks kind of nice.

Josh Anderson:
It goes on to talk about rollators, which these are kind of the devices that if you think of, they usually have the wheels on them, kind of look like a walker with wheels, but you can also usually sit on them. And it talks about those a little bit and just kind of making ones that look a little bit better and also making them out of carbon fiber, which not only makes them kind of sleek and aesthetically pleasing, but also makes them weigh a whole lot less, so they’re actually more accessible at the same time.

Josh Anderson:
Along those same lines, it talks about new walking sticks that are made colorful, customized for the user. So not going to have a one size fits all, but also not a one style fits all because not everyone wants to have the exact same kind of looking device. I mean, of course there are some exceptions doesn’t really talk about it in here, but if you think of the white cane, I guess changing the color on that could make it not as recognizable, not as useful for the sighted individuals who would see the white cane and know that, oh, this individual is using that for mobility, so give them a little bit of room and make sure that I do know that individual is blind and using that for mobility.

Josh Anderson:
Then it gets on to talking about bionic arms. There’s been a lot of stories about this kind of lately in the media, and we’ve even had some folks on here talking about it, about just all the advancements using machine learning, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, new technology to create these bionic arms, bionic hands, and other prosthetics that really can become more user-friendly and maybe more useful to the actual individual who needs it.

Josh Anderson:
It talks about some different ones on here, but one thing I really wanted to talk about was that there’s an individual on here that they kind of talked to who’s a user of a bionic hand. And they’ve written a little bit critically about the way that the media portrays it. This is not the only story I’ve seen to be critical of the way that the media portrays these devices. And I mean, I’m sure that on this show, I’m probably guilty of this a little bit too, just because I get amazed by this technology, but hopefully listeners, that I try to just that information out to folks. The choice on what you use, what you buy, what you purchase, how you access the world around you, luckily that is completely and totally up to you.

Josh Anderson:
But the individual that’s talking in here, which is writer and human geography Britt Young, he writes that these kind of flashy, bionic devices often aren’t as efficient as the marketing may tell you. And sometimes a simpler device can actually not only be more cost effective, but more practical for the user. And it says there’s a massive disconnect between the users and the designers.

Josh Anderson:
That’s a story that I’ve seen out there circulating a lot, usually written by individuals with disabilities about the things that are being created. It’s always wonderful that engineers and scientists and all these folks are making these great technological advances in assistive technology, in access, in everything else. But from time to time, is it really and truthfully going to be useful to an individual with a disability may or may not be true.

Josh Anderson:
And I think that’s a very important thing in all of this research, in all of the things that individuals do to try to help individuals with disabilities, is make sure that you’re including individuals with disabilities in this, or you’re going to spend a lot of time making this really cool, amazing thing and no one’s going to want it. It may be too hard to use. It may be too expensive. It may not really solve a big enough issue to warrant the price or the difficulty of use or really, the whole creation of it. And a lot of time could probably be wasted.

Josh Anderson:
So hopefully, researchers and everyone is actually including individuals with disabilities, and not just one, not just two, but as many as you can, in this process to find out exactly what gives the most use, what actually solves problems that haven’t already been solved in a good way, and also what can actually be affordable and accessible to the individuals who actually need it.

Josh Anderson:
But I digress, I got off on a bit of a tangent there, but really I do kind of like the fact that it does talk about in here that things are trying to make them a little bit more aesthetically pleasing, give folks choice. Don’t just to make one device and this is it, and this is what it looks like, and this is what you’re doing with it. Sometimes as simple as offering different colors, sometimes as simple as just offering maybe some other different aesthetics to make things a little bit more pleasing to the eye. No one wants to be singled out. Nobody wants to kind of show that they’re using something different than other people.

Josh Anderson:
I think of this, especially in kids, in teenagers, in young adults. As adults, maybe the standing out part is a little bit better, but when we’re young, blending in is kind of a nice thing. And sometimes that’s all you really do want to do. So maybe even making things that look a lot more like something that everyone would use can make a big, huge difference.

Josh Anderson:
But I will put a link to this over in the show notes. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, listeners, what are your thoughts on assistive technology? Where is that disconnect between what is made and what is actually needed by the individuals that can benefit from it? You can always shoot us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124 or shoot us a line on Twitter @INDATAproject. But I always like to know your thoughts on what you might think about those kinds of situations.

Josh Anderson:
Hearing’s kind of a funny thing. For one thing, I guess it’s subjective. What some would refer to as music, others call noise, what may be calming to one is annoying to another, but one thing that rings true for all is that a loss in hearing can leave you missing vital information in conversation, entertainment, and really life as a whole. Well, our guest today is Brian Taylor, and he’s here to tell us about some of the exciting advancements in hearing aid technology and how they can act kind of like a tiny little sound engineer inside your ear. Well, Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian Taylor:
Thanks, Josh. Great to be with you.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, I’m really excited to get into this and to talk about the technology. Hearing aids is something we don’t get to talk about a whole heck of a lot on the show, so I’m very excited. But before we get into that, could you start us off by telling our listeners just a little bit about yourself and your background?

Brian Taylor:
Sure. I’m happy to do that. I am an audiologist, and I have been one for a little over 30 years. I’ve had the great privilege of doing a lot of different things in the profession. I’ve ran clinics and practices and dispensed a lot of hearing aids over the years. I’ve also been involved with research and teaching at a couple of different universities and been able to work in the industry, which is where I currently am right now with a hearing aid manufacturer by the name of Signia.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Excellent. Well, you just opened up a whole well of questions in my head, but we’ll try to get to as many of them as we can today. But we’re on here to talk about hearing aids. So let’s start with that. Just for some background, can you tell our listeners a little about, I don’t know, the history of hearing aids?

Brian Taylor:
Sure. I think that a good starting point briefly is hearing aids really they’ve been around fo more than 100 years, but it was really after World War II in the mid ’40s that they kind of took off. There were a lot of veterans that came back with hearing loss. The technology was such that you could put things in and around people’s years. That’s when the hearing aids kind of were on the map. That’s when the profession of audiology really came into existence. And then in the late mid to late ’90s, technology moved from analog to digital, and that’s when things really took off. That’s the brief history of hearing aids.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, sure, sure, sure. And I mean, I even think the picture of the guy with the big cone up to his ear, kind of really, really old school hearing aid, I guess.

Brian Taylor:
Well, some people say that a caveman with his hand cupped behind his ear was the first hearing aid.

Josh Anderson:
Sure. And who of us hasn’t done that and try to hear a little bit better? With the move over to digital, did that kind of make them smaller? They used to be a much larger device. You could always kind of see them there in the ear. Did that help make them smaller or was there other things that kind of changed over the years a little bit?

Brian Taylor:
Yeah. Yeah, I think your listeners are probably familiar with the concept of Moore’s Law, the doubling of computer capacity every 12 to 18 months. And that’s what drives a lot of the innovations. That in combination with the innovations around power consumptions, batteries, those are what really drives the size, getting smaller and being able to put more robust features onto a hearing aid that’s really pretty tiny.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. And even with all the technological changes in everything over the years, what are some of the challenges with hearing that are still faced by some hearing aid users?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think first we have to acknowledge that hearing aids, they’ve come a long way in 20 or 30 years. I mean, they’re phenomenal how many features they can pack onto a chip and sound quality wise, how good they are. But I think some of the challenges that remain are around background noise. You walk into a cocktail party situation, where there are a lot of people talking and a lot of other noises, it becomes real challenge just because there’s so much going on. If there are many people talking, a hearing aid doesn’t know which talker you want to listen to and which one you want to ignore.

Brian Taylor:
And for a lot of people, especially as they get older, I think that it affects their concentration. They get more tired at the end of the day. It wears down a person’s auditory capacity when they’re trying to always listen through all the noise. And I think everybody kind of struggles with that, but as you get older and you have a hearing loss, it becomes even more apparent.

Josh Anderson:
Oh no, it definitely does. What kinds of advancements are being made to assist with these challenges?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think a couple of different things. I think that microphone technology, we call them directional microphones, it’s basically the sounds that are in front of you are amplified and sounds to the side and behind you are markedly decreased. So as long as you keep the talker of interest in front of you and the noise is relatively stationary and not moving around too much, that’s highly effective. It’s improving, what’s called the signal-to-noise ratio. The signal, of course, is usually the talker of interest and the noise is everything else you don’t want to hear. And so, we’re always tasked with trying to improve the hearing aid wearers’ signal-to-noise ratio.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. Brian, where did the inspiration for this technology come from?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think the technology you’re talking about is probably the split processing at Signia. It’s a really unique feature. The inspiration came from the engineers in our R&D team, which resides over in Europe. We have engineers in Germany. We have engineers in Denmark. The company, Signia, until about 2016 was a division of Siemens. And so, we have a lot of German engineers that are always thinking about things like this.

Brian Taylor:
And they had this idea, and we can get into the details here probably, Josh, but split processing. They’ve had this kind of on the draft board for a long time, but they weren’t able to do it because the chip didn’t have enough capacity, wasn’t powerful enough. And the power consumption was too great. As I mentioned before with Moore’s Law and with power consumption improving, we now are able to put this on a ear level hearing aid.

Josh Anderson:
Brian, get a little bit deeper. Tell me a little bit more about this split processing. How does it work?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think the best way to explain split processing is to first talk about how traditional hearing aids work. Essentially, they are looking for the dominant signal in the person’s listening environment. For example, if the dominant signal, I’ll just keep it simple, is a fan running. And it’s in one area of the room, the hearing aid identifies that sound. All hearing aids have what’s called the signal classifier on it. Basically, always looking at the environment and determining what sounds are out there. And if it determines the dominant signal is a fan running, then it’ll turn that sound down because typically you don’t want to hear a sound like that. It’s highly annoying.

Brian Taylor:
But the problem with that processing is that when it turns down the signal for the fan, it also turns down, potentially at least, other sounds in the environment. That’s kind of a drawback of any traditional hearing aid when they get into a room where there’s a lot of sounds around a person. Split processing, which is totally unique to Signia, it doesn’t do that. It’s able to identify what’s probably likely to be speech in the environment and amplify that differently than other extraneous noises. So you’re able to split the signal in the person’s listening environment and amplify the two different streams in a very different way.

Brian Taylor:
And if you don’t mind I get a little bit technical here, but if the hearing aid recognizes that it’s probably speech, it provides a little less compression to the same signal and it reduces what’s called noise reduction. And for the other signal, which is surrounding the person, it compresses it more to try to drown it out. So you get these two different processors working, which is pretty phenomenal when you think about it. In fact, when this technology was on the drawing board a year or two ago, it took me and several of our research audiologists to kind of figure out how it actually works and how to explain it to people because it’s so different than anything else that’s out there.

Josh Anderson:
I bet. Especially whenever you talk about hearing aids dampening sound or kind of bringing sound down, it sounds like the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing, but I know complaints I’ve heard from folks wearing hearing aids is what exactly what you mentioned, where everything just gets louder. So if there is that background noise, it’s no easier to focus. So that’s great that it actually kind of knows what it is that you’re kind of trying to listen to.

Brian Taylor:
Exactly.

Josh Anderson:
And bring that up while deadening some of those other sounds.

Brian Taylor:
Exactly.

Josh Anderson:
And Brian, I got to ask, can this kind of technology, this kind of hearing aid technology assist anyone with hearing loss? Or is there a certain kinds of hearing loss it’s better for? Tell me a little bit about that.

Brian Taylor:
No, I think anybody that is in, I call them challenging listening situations. I always use the example of a cocktail party, but it could be really anywhere, a restaurant, cafe, your home where there are a lot of people talking. It doesn’t matter the degree of a person’s hearing loss. The technology is effective.

Brian Taylor:
Where the technology of split processing really shines is when you get into these demanding, challenging situations where there’s talkers coming on either side of you that might move around, the noise might move around, that type of thing. That’s where this technology really shines.

Josh Anderson:
I got to ask you, and maybe this is just something to work on, is there a way to quiet the kids down, so I don’t have to hear them as much? No, I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.

Brian Taylor:
If you can figure that out, let me know, because I struggle with that myself.

Josh Anderson:
Your sales will go through the roof as every parent goes and buys those.

Brian Taylor:
Exactly.

Josh Anderson:
Well, Brian, this is amazing technology and a great thing that can help a lot of folks. You’ve been in this business for a long time. So where do you see the future of hearing a technology going? And again, this is a great leap and a great thing to be able to do, but you’ve seen a lot of advancements in the last 30 years. Where do you think it might be going from here even?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think hearing aids are going to continue need to get smarter. Again, it’s related to that incremental improvement that’s driven by Moore’s Law. I think you’re going to see hearing aids kind of mimic the way the auditory system of the human being works, where certain talkers that they don’t want to listen to, the hearing aid will know that and reduce the sound of their voice. And talkers of interests that they want to amplify, they want to hear more of the, hearing aid will recognize that and turn up their sound. I think that the split processing is the first leap into that type of signal processing. I think you’re just going to see that become more and more robust, more and more sophisticated.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. That’s how it always signs seem to be with the technology. You’ve got that one big step. And then from there you just get leap off points, it seems like, with all kinds of new stuff.

Brian Taylor:
Exactly. There’s this field of hearing science called auditory scene analysis that describes how the human brain and the ear are able to pick out sounds that they want to hear and ignore other things. And how you do that moment to moment? It’s always shifting. That’s a highly sophisticated function of the human brain and the ear, the auditory system. And hearing aids are starting to, and I think down the road are going to start to mimic that human phenomenon called auditory scene analysis.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. It’s a long ways from just the amplification that you used to get from them, isn’t it?

Brian Taylor:
Yeah. Yeah. They’re just because smarter. They can pick out the sounds you want to hear and automatically amplify those and then reduce the sounds that you don’t want to hear.

Josh Anderson:
That is awesome. That is awesome. Brian, can you tell me a story about someone that you’ve worked with either directly or indirectly and how this kind of technology has really been able to make a difference in their life?

Brian Taylor:
Well, I think what’s really impressed me over the last, I don’t know, six months or so since this product launched, this feature launched, is the number of experienced hearing aid wearers that have been so impressed by the way that this hearing aid sounds when they get into these cocktail party like situations. Hearing aids are pretty good, and historically they have been, when the talkers in front of you and the noise is stationary behind you or to the side.

Brian Taylor:
And where they really notice split processing shining is if the waiter walks up to the side of them, with traditional hearing aids, you won’t hear the waiter talk because the hearing aid is turning down the sounds on the side and behind the person. But with split processing, it realizes that’s a speech sound the person probably wants to hear, so it turns it up automatically, even though it’s behind the person. It’s in situations like that, where there’s speech from multiple directions, where split processing really stands apart.

Josh Anderson:
You’d mentioned that there were kind of different models that have the split processing in it. Do we want to talk about those a little bit?

Brian Taylor:
We launched a product, a new line of products in the spring that had split processing in it. Up to then, all the other models didn’t have it. Those other models are still available, just that the most current generation of hearing aids has the split processing in it, but there are previous generations of hearing aids that are still available that wouldn’t have it in it.

Brian Taylor:
Yeah, I mean, I can’t think of a reason why a person would want to go with the older generation of hearing aids, but there’s certain styles of hearing aids that don’t have it in it yet. Maybe that’s an interesting track we could talk about. There’s different styles or what we call form factors, the hearing aids that go behind your ear, hearing aids that go really, really tiny, they go into your ear, and then more instant-fit kind of products that are off the shelf versus customizable.

Josh Anderson:
I’ve always wondered, what are the… Well, I’m not going to say, what are the differences? What are the benefits of the in the ear, the behind the ear? Is it just on kind of how your hearing is? Is it personal preference? What are, I don’t know, I guess the pluses and minuses of the different form factors and different kinds?

Brian Taylor:
Yeah. Well, I think that we have to acknowledge that there still is a stigmatizing factor of hearing aids, even though I think it’s improved markedly over the last decade or so. The smaller, the hearing aid, the more likely many people are to wear it. I think what’s really interesting is you’re starting to see hearing aids look more and more like consumer audio earbuds. I think that’s a real positive because you see so many AirPods out there today. And if a hearing aid looks like an AirPod, I think some people, especially if they’re in their ’50s and ’60s and have a milder hearing loss, maybe they’re more likely to wear it.

Brian Taylor:
There’s two major styles. There’s the kind that goes behind your ear and then there’s the kind that goes into your ear. And there’s a couple acoustical advantages to the ones that go into your ear, but that’s one of those things where you have to sit down with a hearing care professional and kind of go through the advantages and disadvantages for you, the individual.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. That’s always kind of important. I know some folks want to just kind of go and buy things off the shelf, and I know that can help some folks, but it really is something that you need to talk to a hearing professional about. And that’s what I’ve heard from so many folks who have kind of tried to, I don’t want to say self-diagnosed, but maybe self-purchased different hearing technology, but then they actually go see an audiologist or a hearing professional and are just amazed by the difference after meeting with them.

Brian Taylor:
Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense to work with a licensed professional, look at and examine what all of your options are.

Josh Anderson:
Definitely. I definitely wouldn’t do off the shelf surgery. I feel like it’s the same kind of thing. Well, Brian, if our listeners want to find out more about you, about the split processing, about Signia, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Brian Taylor:
I think they can visit the Signia website. It’s www.signia.net. And I think if you go to signia.net, you can see the entire product line at that website.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We will definitely put that down in the show notes. Well, Brian Taylor, thank you so much for coming on the show today, telling us about this exciting new technology that can really help folks with their hearing, with just actually being able to hear what they really want to, as opposed to just turning up the sound on everything around them.

Brian Taylor:
My pleasure, Josh.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAproject.O.

Josh Anderson:
Ur captions in transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation, or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to [Nikol Prieto 00:26:38] for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule.

Josh Anderson:
Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, our supporting partners, or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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