Q&A: Julian Pieters, Ampetronic managing director

Tim Kridel talks with Ampetronic's Julian Pieters to explore market trends affecting assistive listening technologies.

TK: What are some marketplace trends in assistive listening? For example, are there any verticals where demand is particularly high or increasing? If so, what’s driving that demand? I would think that higher education is one partly because a lot of college students damaged their hearing as teenagers with MP3 players and because a lot of older adults have gone back to school after losing their jobs in the recession.

JP: There are key growth verticals as you say, and higher education is a key one. This is not just because of the damage due to mp3 players though, this is not having an impact on undergraduate age people really, it manifests itself later in life. Having said that, use of MP3 players is a trend that will likely make the requirement for assistive listening more prevalent in the future. Published figures suggest that over 10% of school-age American children already have permanent hearing loss. It only takes 15 minutes or more of listening to loud music using ear buds to cause damage, so it doesn’t take much imagination to work out that hearing loss is going to be a rising problem for the general population in the future.

The growth in higher education (and elsewhere) is in part legislation and building codes that require assistive listening wherever there is amplified sound (or wherever ‘reasonable’ depending on your country). Also because these are high value learning environments where people have to spend a lot of time digesting spoken material, so good sound is a vital part of the service offering. Similar reasons lead to an increase in interest in corporate meeting rooms and conference venues.

The biggest rising trend at the moment is ‘transient’ applications where the user is passing through, like on-board transport and transport passenger waiting areas for equality of access to passenger information announcements. This is limited to Hearing Loop technology as this doesn’t require a user to seek out a receiver – the receiver is already built into the user’s own hearing aid. A recent high profile example is adoption of the technology in New York Taxis.

TK: What are some technological trends in assistive listening? For example, are Ampetronic and other vendors adding certain new types of features to their AL products? If so, what needs/capabilities do those features address?

JP: In some key markets, especially the USA, the big trend has been to adoption of hearing loop technology, with a big grass roots movement to demand provision of these systems. While the technology has been around for a long time, in this age of increasing awareness, increasing accessibility legislation, and more tech-savvy consumers, the hard of hearing end users are starting to ‘pull’ the technology that they prefer. The reason for this technology is that they already have the receivers in their own hearing aids, giving excellent amplification tailored to their own hearing loss, and meaning they don’t have to go through the frustrating, embarrassing and sometimes fruitless task of tracking down a receiver.

Assistive listening needs to be very simple for the user, so there is not much we want to do to increase user’s functionality or complexity. Some newer solutions (e.g. smartphone streaming) do offer new application areas, but don’t address the core assistive listening market well, where the complexity of using the technology is a substantial barrier. Other areas for innovation in loop technology include developing solutions that can be integrated into challenging environments (eg. Taxis, trains, lift cars), integrating network control and monitoring.

TK: Most adults now own a smartphone. Do those devices have any effect on AL? For example, could/should the system somehow leverage those to reduce the need for dedicated devices, such as by feeding audio over Wi-Fi to the smartphone and its earbuds?

JP: The advantage of using a smartphone to receive assistive listening signals is mainly that you’re already carrying your own receiver. Which means that you don’t need to identify yourself as having hearing loss or go through the hassle of picking up a venues rental equipment (often perceived to be unsanitary) - which are the main reasons that FM and IR assistive listening devices go unused in many venues. Smartphones and apps also offer the potential to digitally ‘tune’ or modify the received audio signal to suit an individual’s particular requirements (amplification of specific frequency bands etc), in the same way as people might alter their home sound systems with equalisers or DSP pre-sets.

This all sounds very positive, however there are problems. The transmission technology that a smartphone receives is either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth at the moment. Both technologies currently have a limit to how many users can connect at once, compete for bandwith with many other systems in 2.4Ghz, significant challenges with maintaining low latency, challenges with robustness of the data streaming, and problems with battery life for the device. There are also pairing procedures that require technological capabilities for end users, that cuts out a large swathe of the core market for assistive listening. These kind of streaming technologies will develop and improve, and provide assistive listening solutions for particular environments and end users that we see as complementary to the current technologies for assistive listening.

Interestingly, Ampetronic is using smartphones in a different way, launching an iphone app as a field strength meter for testing, maintaining and commissioning induction loop systems. We can also use this device to enable the smartphone to pick up the audio from a hearing loop, giving access to the audio for people who do not have hearing aids – this is clearly using the smartphone as a complimentary technology, widening the access to existing assistive listening.

TK: In your experience, what’s key for designing an effective AL system? For example, what questions should integrators and consultants ask? I would think that content types (e.g. music versus spoken word) and maybe system scalability/flexibility would be two things to consider. And are there any common pitfalls and gotchas that can trip up an AL installation?

JP: The first thing is to make sure you are creating a benefit. Assistive listening is all about improving signal to noise for speech intelligibility frequencies. If you don’t achieve this, the assistive listening system is a waste of money and time! In practice this means the audio input to the system is the most critical piece – microphones need to be selected and used in a way that gives signal to noise improvement for the wanted audio. This may sound obvious, but it is a very common failure in all types of assistive listening.

Second, make sure people know about it and how to use it. Too many assistive listening systems fail because there is no useful signage, or because a venue’s staff are not trained or are unaware of how the assistive listening system works. Spending a lot of money on technology only helps if you also invest in people who can help users make it work. Induction loop technology has some advantage here as there is no need for the venue to manage, hand-out or maintain receivers.

Third, realise that the people responsible for an assistive listening system are rarely users of the system. When a video or PA system has problems, everyone can see or hear it. When an assistive listening system has problems, it is too often the end users who suffer. So putting in place regular monitoring and maintenance for the assistive listening system is essential.

Finally, make the most of the standards that exist when putting together a specification, and demand installers prove compliance. For example, hearing loops have a very comprehensive performance standard IEC60118-4 which should be referenced in any system specification. Contractors should be obliged to test systems and certify (ideally demonstrate) their performance before acceptance – too many systems get installed but inadequately commissioned, unfortunately it is possible to get away with poor assistive listening systems without anyone noticing unless a system test / demonstration is required.

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