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Project aims to help NZers with hearing problems

University of Canterbury project aims to help half a million New Zealanders with hearing problems

September 11, 2014

A major University of Canterbury research project, which today received a $1 million Government funding boost, aims to help many of the 500,000 New Zealanders who are deaf and have hearing problems.

University of Canterbury researcher Dr Donald Derrick says his research team intends to improve speech perception through audio devices. The worldwide audio device market is now worth more than $250 billion a year.

``Yet the demand for improved hearing aids is largely unmet, and noisy conditions seriously interfere with headphones, emergency radios, or smart phones. Using a cell phone in a crowd or by the side of a busy road often leads to strained conversations.

``This University of Canterbury project continues cutting edge research to improve the usefulness of audio communication devices by harnessing air-flow as a carrier of speech information. In the first phase of this Government-funded research, we demonstrated that we can take air-flow information from the audio environment and use it to enhance speech perception of individual words.

``Air-flow enhancement allows users to lower the volume to protect their hearing, and in the case of emergency radios and aviation, will save lives through better understanding.

``Listeners incorporate this inaudible air-flow information automatically without any effort and without distracting the listener from the message or taking attention away from visual tasks.

``We developed an automated system that runs in real-time and requires very little computational power. Using existing technology, the entire system could easily be miniaturised to about the size of the tip of a thumb. We are currently and will continue to optimise this system to enhance speech perception for continuous speech, a requirement for many real-world tasks.

The next phase of the project will also continue research into benefits in foreign language environments and for second language English listeners and speakers. Tests also include use of this technology with cellular codes and noise-filtered audio.

``Best suitability tests will maximise the benefit of commercial implementations. We will work closely with industry to tune the research to end-user requirements and maximise technology availability on the market.

``Successful outcomes will provide social and economic benefit to New Zealand in that people who may have been limited by their hearing will be able to communicate more effectively.’’

Dr Derrick’s multidisciplinary research project is being conducted through the university’s New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour and brings together researchers with backgrounds in linguistics, audiology, speech perception and engineering.

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