Futuristic hearing aid listens to brain waves for intelligible speech

Researchers at the KU Leaven University in Belgium have developed a technique which uses brainwaves to determine whom the user is listening to within a one second timeframe.

The researchers have been working on developments that take the listener’s requirements into account, using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brainwaves that develop in response to sounds, allowing the researchers to determine which speaker the user wants to listen to. 

The system separates the sound signals produced by different speakers and links them to specific brainwaves, taking into account a delay of ten to twenty seconds to get the speaker right with reasonable certainty. 

Professor Tom Francart, department of neurosciences at KU Leaven commented: “A hearing aid may select the loudest speaker in the room, for instance, but that is not necessarily the person you’re listening to. Alternatively, the system may take into account your viewing direction, but when you’re driving a car, you can’t look at the passenger sitting next to you.”

Artificial intelligence is used to decode the listening direction from the brainwaves alone, without having to link them to the actual sounds. The researchers trained the system to determine whether someone is listening to a speaker on their left or right, using an acoustic camera to redirect the aim and to suppress the background noise. 

This technique can be achieved within less than one second on average, constituting a realistic timespan to switch from one speaker to the other. 

The research team believes that it will be another five years until the development of a smart hearing aid that works with brainwaves on a commercial level, as Francart explained: “To measure someone’s brainwaves in the lab, we make them wear a cap with electrodes. This method is obviously not feasible in real life. But research is already being done into hearing aids with built-in electrodes.” 
 

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