Research

Insect-inspired Microphone May Advance Hearing Aids

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An insect-inspired microphone that can tackle the problem of locating sounds and eliminating background noise may advance modern-day hearing aid systems. According to an announcement from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR)–Scottish Scottish Section at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, researchers will test a new hearing aid design using a miniature directional microphone that is similar to the ear of an insect.

James Windmill

James Windmill, PhD, University of Strathclyde

The researchers report that, despite remarkable advances in sound analysis in hearing aids, the actual microphone itself has remained essentially unchanged for decades. Current directional microphone technology is said to add cost, weight, and power requirements to hearing aids compromising their design. Collaborative research between Strathclyde and MRC/CSO IHR at the university’s Technology and Innovation Centre is pursuing an alternative design approach.

“Our research aims to create a hearing aid system that can reduce or control unwanted noises, focusing the hearing aid on only the sound arriving from in front of the user,” said James Windmill, PhD, of the Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering at Strathclyde. “Currently, users can tell whether a sound source is in front or behind, but struggle to detect sounds from below or above, such as echoes in a large room. We aim to solve the problem using a new type of miniature directional microphone, inspired by how some insects hear sounds.”

According to Dr Windmill, the research team’s work will evaluate problems caused by the distance from which a sound emanates, or how to distinguish a sound from a distant source, like a train or plane, from a quiet sound that is nearby, like a human voice. He reported that the project will also investigate 3D printing techniques to optimize the hearing aid design so that it works best acoustically in conjunction with the new microphone.

The team at Strathclyde will design, build, and test the new insect-inspired microphones and hearing aid structures, while the team at IHR will test their operation as hearing aids, including human trials of the new designs.

“We are very excited about this collaboration, applying our hearing-aid and hearing-loss expertise to this project,” said William M. Whitmer, PhD, a scientist at MRC/CSO IHR. “These recent breakthroughs in microphones could revolutionize hearing-aid design, and could result in real advances in the quality of support offered to those affected by hearing loss.”

Source: University of Strathclyde, MRC/CSO IHR

Photo credit: University of Strathclyde