Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
What would it be like if you could feel sounds like doorbells ringing, alarm clocks buzzing, and water faucets accidentally left dripping?
A new device that turns sound into dynamic patterns of vibrations does just that, and it’s helping those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing access vital information in a unique way. Neosensory Buzz, a wearable device resembling a wristwatch, mimics the ear’s cochlea by sending vibrations via the nervous system to the brain, effectively creating another sensory channel to the brain’s auditory processing center. (It can be worn by people who don’t have hearing loss, too.)
Turning sound into unique vibrations
Dr. David Eagleman, PhD, and Dr. Scott Novich, PhD, Stanford University neuroscientists and co-founders of Neosensory, began researching sensory substitutions for the Deaf in 2013. The technology they build essentially focuses on sending data streams to the brain through the sense of touch, known as haptic feedback.
“The brain is locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull, yet it constructs this whole world for us,” Eagleman explained, describing the eyes, ears and fingers as peripheral “plug and play” sensory devices. “Your brain doesn’t know and it doesn’t care where it gets the data from. It is fundamentally always trying to get information across the senses. Whatever information comes in, it just figures out what to do with it.”
Adjustable settings via smartphone app
Buzz can be programmed to user preference using three different modes:
- Everyday mode adjusts to the user’s surroundings, canceling out unnecessary background noise.
- Sleep mode filters out sounds like snoring while still alerting the user to emergency sounds such as sirens or smoke alarms
- Music mode allows users to feel the pulse of the beat along with nuances of the melody.
The wearable also features an alarm setting, which users can customize with their desired vibration pattern.
How Buzz differs from current assistive technology
Assistive listening devices such as hearing loops, FM systems, infrared systems, and hearing aid accessories rely on amplification to deliver sound. Assistive alerting devices, such as bed shakers and flashing strobe lights, use touch and sight to alert users to alarm situations. There are also new smartwatch apps that identify sounds and display them as text on the watch face, such as the free SoundWatch for watches that use Google Android OS.
Buzz uses sensory substitution to feed sound information directly to the brain through the skin. It benefits those who were born Deaf as well as those who were born with hearing but currently use hearing aids or other assistive listening devices. Users describe wearing Buzz as a tri-modal hearing experience.
“They are seeing someone’s lips move, hearing something through their ears and they’re feeling vibration on their skin,” Eagleman said. “When they put all three of those channels together they get a really rich sense of what’s going on.”
Future models focus on high-frequency hearing loss
Neosensory plans to launch a new device specifically designed for those with high-frequency hearing loss in 2021 using the same hardware programmed with different algorithms. The technology captures high-frequency phonemes and turns them into very particular vibrations on a specific part of the wrist.
A phoneme is a unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another. For example, those with high-frequency hearing loss often have problems distinguishing between consonants f, h, and s. Eagleman calls the patented technology cross-sensory boosting.
“For people with age-related hearing loss, it’s just a few phonemes that start getting hard to hear,” Eagleman said. “With cross-sensory boosting, your ears still do most of the work but the wristband tells you which phoneme was just said. It allows people to understand what’s happening with speech in particular.”
Buzz debuted in March 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is now sold worldwide. “Buzz helps you hear through your skin,” Eagleman said. “It’s essentially doing exactly what the brain is doing. What people are feeling is that now they’re tapped into the auditory world.”
How much does Buzz cost?
Buying options include a one-time purchase for $399, or a subscription for $99 plus $15 per month for two years.