Q&A: Xenios Maroudas, Sennheiser portfolio manager, Business Communication

Sennheiser's Xenios Maroudas outlines the latest developments in assistive listening technologies when he speaks with Tim Kridel.

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.

XM: In the context of the Sennheiser MobileConnect and CinemaConnect launch, we had a survey conducted in Germany which actually revealed that visual and hearing impairments are quite evenly spread across all age groups, with an increase from the age of 70. Technical assistance would be welcomed in many more cases than one might expect. There seems to be a latent demand that society needs to address and meet.

TK: What are some technological trends in AV products for those with hearing loss? For example, are Sennheiser and other vendors adding certain new types of features to their assistive-listening products? If so, what needs/capabilities do those features address?

XM: I think that the MobileConnect and CinemaConnect streaming solutions are currently setting a new technological standard by taking the BYOD trend to the assistive listening sector. All the user needs is an app on his or her mobile, and all the venue owner needs is a 19-in audio server – the “brain” of the system which manages all audio streams – and a wi-fi “access point” for distributing the signals in the auditorium.

People simply bring their own smartphones and earphones to the cinema or theatre and receive the required auditory support (or audio descriptions for the visually impaired) via this app. We’ll soon implement a new feature which will even enable them to individually adjust and fine-tune the sound to their hearing preferences and requirements.

Venues and facilities do not need to store and hand out equipment, or maintain units for their patrons. Also, there is no need for induction loops or similar installations. For the user, this means true inclusion and participation, as they do not have to choose their seat in a designated area for e.g. the hearing impaired but can join their friends and family and sit wherever they like to. The fact that they are using their own mobile phones with their favourite headphones removes any idea of a stigma, which may crop up if people have to use special, often ‘uncool’ audio devices handed out by the venue.

TK: Most adults now own a smartphone. CinemaConnect is an example of how facilities can use those devices to help patrons with hearing loss. The Abaton theater was the first to use CinemaConnect. What did you learn from that installation? For example, how did patrons respond? How did you ensure that the system was reliable?

XM: Patrons were thrilled with the system installed in the Abaton cinema. Technology-wise: no hiccups, nothing. The system is simple to install – it comes with a two-page Quick Guide, you follow these instructions and the cinema is ready to go. Everything has been working smoothly there ever since.

TK: In your experience, what’s key for designing an effective assistive-listening system? For example, what questions should integrators and consultants ask? I would think that content types (e.g. music versus spoken word), system scalability/flexibility and reliability for wireless systems would be three things to consider, but I’m open to suggestions. And are there any common pitfalls and “gotchas” that can trip up an assistive-listening installation?

XM: The issues you are listing rather refer to ‘older’, established technologies, for example wide-band and narrow-band transmission which is suitable for music or speech, respectively. A new solution such as MobileConnect has an audio bandwidth of 5 to 21,500 Hz, and is suitable for transmitting any audio or music content. Also, with BYOD, you will not be confronted with the questions of flexibility and scalability.

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