I have two items, both concerning sound but in very different ways.
Phones in your ears
Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on smartphones you can put in your ears like you do an earbud. The work is in its very earliest stages as they are trying to establish a new field of research. There is a proposed timeline,
Here’s more from a December 2, 2020 University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert but published on December 15, 2020),
CSL’s [Coordinated Science Laboratory] Systems and Networking Research Group (SyNRG) is defining a new sub-area of mobile technology that they call “earable computing.” The team believes that earphones will be the next significant milestone in wearable devices, and that new hardware, software, and apps will all run on this platform.
“The leap from today’s earphones to ‘earables’ would mimic the transformation that we had seen from basic phones to smartphones,” said Romit Roy Choudhury, professor in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). “Today’s smartphones are hardly a calling device anymore, much like how tomorrow’s earables will hardly be a smartphone accessory.”
Instead, the group believes tomorrow’s earphones will continuously sense human behavior, run acoustic augmented reality, have Alexa and Siri whisper just-in-time information, track user motion and health, and offer seamless security, among many other capabilities.
The research questions that underlie earable computing draw from a wide range of fields, including sensing, signal processing, embedded systems, communications, and machine learning. The SyNRG team is on the forefront of developing new algorithms while also experimenting with them on real earphone platforms with live users.
Computer science PhD student Zhijian Yang and other members of the SyNRG group, including his fellow students Yu-Lin Wei and Liz Li, are leading the way. They have published a series of papers in this area, starting with one on the topic of hollow noise cancellation that was published at ACM SIGCOMM 2018. Recently, the group had three papers published at the 26th Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking (ACM MobiCom) on three different aspects of earables research: facial motion sensing, acoustic augmented reality, and voice localization for earphones.
In Ear-AR: Indoor Acoustic Augmented Reality on Earphones, the group looks at how smart earphone sensors can track human movement, and, depending on the user’s location, play 3D sounds in the ear.
“If you want to find a store in a mall,” says Zhijian, “the earphone could estimate the relative location of the store and play a 3D voice that simply says ‘follow me.’ In your ears, the sound would appear to come from the direction in which you should walk, as if it’s a voice escort.”
The second paper, EarSense: Earphones as a Teeth Activity Sensor, looks at how earphones could sense facial and in-mouth activities such as teeth movements and taps, enabling a hands-free modality of communication to smartphones. Moreover, various medical conditions manifest in teeth chatter, and the proposed technology would make it possible to identify them by wearing earphones during the day. In the future, the team is planning to look into analyzing facial muscle movements and emotions with earphone sensors.
The third publication, Voice Localization Using Nearby Wall Reflections, investigates the use of algorithms to detect the direction of a sound. This means that if Alice and Bob are having a conversation, Bob’s earphones would be able to tune into the direction Alice’s voice is coming from.
“We’ve been working on mobile sensing and computing for 10 years,” said Wei. “We have a lot of experience to define this emerging landscape of earable computing.”
Haitham Hassanieh, assistant professor in ECE, is also involved in this research. The team has been funded by both NSF [US National Science Foundation] and NIH [National Institutes of Health], as well as companies like Nokia and Google. See more at the group’s Earable Computing website.
Noise hurts hospital caregivers and patients
A December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article features one of the corporation’s Day 6 Radio programmes. This one was about proposed sound design in hospitals as imagined by musician Yoko Sen and, on a converging track, professor of applied psychology, Judy Edworthy,
As an ambient electronic musician, Yoko Sen spends much of her time building intricate, soothing soundscapes.
But when she was hospitalized in 2012, she found herself immersed in a very different sound environment.
Already panicked by her health condition, she couldn’t tune out the harsh tones of the medical machinery in her hospital room.
Instead, she zeroed in on two machines — a patient monitor and a bed fall alarm. Their piercing tones had blended together to create a diminished fifth, a musical interval so offensive that it was banned in medieval churches.
Sen went on to start Sen Sound, a Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise dedicated to improving the sound of hospitals.
‘Alarms are ignored, missed’
The volume of noise in today’s hospitals isn’t just unpleasant. It can also put patients’ health at risk.
According to Judy Edworthy, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Plymouth, the sheer number of alarms going off each day can spark a sort of auditory burnout among doctors and nurses.
“Alarms are ignored, missed, or generally just not paid attention to,” says Edworthy.
In a hospital environment that’s also inundated with announcements from overhead speakers, ringing phones, trolleys, and all other manner of insidious background sound, it can be difficult for staff to accurately locate and differentiate between the alarms.
Worse yet, in many hospitals, many of the alarms ringing out across the ward are false. Studies have shown that as many as 99 per cent of clinical alarms are inaccurate.
The resulting problem has become so widespread that a term has been coined to describe it: alarm fatigue.
Raising the alarm
Sen’s company, launched in 2016, has partnered with hospitals and design incubators and even collaborates directly with medical device companies seeking to redesign their alarms.
Over the years, Sen has interviewed countless patients and hospital staff who share her frustration with noise.
But when she first sat down with the engineers responsible for the devices’ design, she found that they tended to treat the sound of their devices as an “afterthought.”
“When people first started to develop medical devices … people thought it was a good idea to have one or two sounds to demonstrate or to indicate when, let’s say for example, the patient’s temperature … exceeded some kind of range,” she [Edworthy] said.
“There wasn’t really any design put into this; it was just a sound that people thought would get your attention by being very loud and aversive and so on.”
Edworthy, who has spent decades studying medical alarm design, took things one step further this summer. In July, the International Standards Organization approved a new set of alarm designs, created by Edworthy, that mimic the natural hospital environment.
The standards, which are accepted by Health Canada, include an electronic heartbeat sound for alarms related to cardiac issues; and a rattling pillbox for drug administration.
Her [Sen’s] team continues to work with companies to improve the sound of existing medical devices. But she has also begun to think more deeply about the long-term future of hospital sound — especially as it relates to the end-of-life experience.
“A study shows that hearing can be the last sense to go when we die,” says Sen.
“It’s really beyond upsetting to think that many people end up dying in acute care hospitals and there are all these medical devices.”
As part of her interviews with patients, Sen has asked what sounds they would most like to hear at the end of their lives — and she discovered a common theme in their responses.
“I asked this question in many different countries, but they are all sounds that symbolize life,” said Sen.
“Sounds of nature, sound of water, voices of loved ones. It’s all the sounds of life that people say they want to hear.”
As the pandemic continues to affect hospitals around the world, those efforts have taken on a new resonance — and Sen hopes the current crisis might serve as an opportunity to help usher in a more healing soundscape.
“My own health crisis almost gave me a new pathway in life,” she said.
There’s an embedded audio file from the Day 6 radio programme featuring this material on sound design and hospitals and there’s an embedded video of Sen delivery a talk about her work in the December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article.
Sen and Edworthy give hope for a less noisy future and better care in hospitals for the living and the dying. Here’s a link to Sen Sound.