Entrepreneur Dr. Bruce Sharpe was concerned when he noticed his father-in-law becoming more withdrawn. The older man was reluctant to go to restaurants and other noisy venues because the hearing aids he had worn for years were unable to distinguish between speech and other noises. Instead, they bluntly amplified or muted all sound, no matter if it was it was the clattering of dishes, raucous laughter three tables away or what the person seated directly across from him was saying.
Searching for a solution, Dr. Sharpe, who has a PhD in mathematical physics, was drawn to the world of artificial intelligence (AI), which was already working on what is popularly known as the ‘cocktail party problem.’
“Results coming out of the labs were promising but like most AI initiatives, the solution demanded a lot of power to run,” Dr. Sharpe says in an interview. “Hearing aids and earbuds don’t have that kind of power, but smartphones do.”
So he set out to harness aspects of AI and “make the phones do all the work.”
The result is the award-winning HeardThat app, produced by Dr. Sharpe’s company, Surrey, B.C.-based Singular Hearing, an AGE-WELL startup affiliate. The app works by linking to hearing aids or earbuds and, when placed on a table and pointed at a speaker, processes the speech and sends it back to users via Bluetooth. A slider control allows the user to control how much, or how little, extraneous sound to reduce.
“All you need to do is press the blue ‘start’ button,” says Dr. Sharpe. “Seriously, that’s it.”
The target market is vast. According to the World Health Organization, about 1.5 billion people currently have some measure of hearing loss, a number that will only grow as the population ages. In this country alone, Statistics Canada reports that in people over 70, some level of hearing loss is practically a given. In turn, this can lead to feelings of isolation and an overall decline in the quality of life.
“Millions of people who have hearing loss and use hearing aids also have smartphones, so the app is a net benefit,” says Dr. Sharpe. “We weren’t sure how audiologists would react to the product but after speaking with many of them, they uniformly loved it. Every one of their patients has this problem, so they’re excited to have this option.”
The app, which has been available at the App Store and on Google Play for the past 18 months, officially launched on September 8, a delay due to the fact that it was created to be used in social situations, which were few and far between during earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the app that is available now is a far cry from the more experimental versions, already fine-tuned to deal with a wide variety of noises.
“Of course, there’s always more we can do, and we urge users to use the feedback button in the app to let us know how we’re doing, and what problems they experience,” Dr. Sharpe says. “It’s always a work in progress.”
Right now, subscriptions for HeardThat, which in 2020 won the What’s Next Innovation Challenge sponsored by AARP Innovation Labs, are available on a monthly or annual basis. Singular Hearing also won the runner-up prize in the 2022 AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge.
Sadly, his father-in-law died before he could test the app in the real world. But Dr. Sharpe’s brother, who has ‘hidden hearing loss’, a clinical condition that cannot be detected by the standard hearing tests that focus only on physical problems in the ear, has become a close collaborator and supporter.
Also, those who do not have hearing loss, people like Dr. Sharpe himself, are using the app, too. Last spring, for example, he and his brother went to a restaurant in Tampa, Florida, that featured craft beer and televisions.
“It was the Stanley Cup hockey finals, which the city’s team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were playing in,” he recalls. “As the storm of cheers, boos and shouting, raged around us, we both used HeardThat, me with my earbuds and he with his hearing aids, and enjoyed a quiet, relaxing dinner during which we heard each other’s every word.”