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March 2017

Hearing aid technology sings a different tune

At a glance
The team

Huiwen Goy, supervised by Frank Russo, Ryerson University’s SMART Lab

The challenge

Hearing loss affects millions of Canadians’ ability to enjoy music and perceive vocal emotion

The solution

Research how emotion and music is perceived through hearing aids

The outcome

Develop an algorithm that better reproduces different genres of music and emotional content in speech

What's next

Program algorithm into newest hearing aids, increased comfort of wear for users

Imagine you could no longer enjoy the symphony – some instruments are now jarring while the melody has lost its nuance. For persons with moderate to severe hearing impairment, music can often lose its ring.

Ryerson University researcher Huiwen Goy is determined to bring back the music for Canadians with hearing loss through a Mitacs Elevate research fellowship with sister companies Phonak and Unitron Hearing.

Huiwen Goy, Ryerson UniversityIn collaboration the Phonak and Unitron teams, Huiwen is investigating the psychology behind the perception of music and how it can be applied to a new generation of hearing aids.

“There are a lot of challenges getting adults to wear their hearing aids,” says Huiwen. “The sounds produced by the hearing aid can be uncomfortable to listen to when compared to how things sound without the hearing aid.”

She continues: “We’re trying to work on the sound processing component. We’ve learned that when a person has hearing loss, they can struggle to understand some of the emotional content of speech — such as the intensity and pitch —differently from a person who can hear normally. It’s hard to say what is behind this, but it affects their ability to enjoy music, too. 

“So we’re looking into questions such as ‘How do different kinds of hearing aids process different sound stimuli?’ And, ‘How can a hearing aid process a rock concert differently from the symphony, while making both sound good to the wearer?’” she explains.

Though it is early in the collaboration, Huiwen’s research will inform the companies’ ongoing product advancement.

“Our company is interested in accessing the latest research in this area. So Huiwen really brings that for us,” says Gurjit Singh, Senior Research Audiologist and Program Manager at Phonak. “This project will help us understand if our products are faithfully reproducing emotions — it’s foundational research that will help us to make better hearing aids. Our hope is that this new generation of hearing aids will give our customers the chance to enjoy the emotional nuances of music better than before.”

For Huiwen, the experience has been refreshing: “This fellowship fills in a big hole in my education. I had learned a lot of technical skills, but in terms of project management, presentation skills, and what it’s like to do research for a company, this is not something that I’ve had practice in. So having training through the Mitacs program really helps to fill in a gap.”

Gurjit has been happy with the partnership too. “We know we can’t do this without the research knowledge that Huiwen brings in from her university. And we couldn’t do that without a partnership with Mitacs.” 

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Elevate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Elevate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: