Design

New hearing aid promises better results

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by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new hearing aid that claims to tune out distracting voices by reading the wearer’s brain waves. People need a difference between the ambient sound level and the level of speech, called the speech-to-noise or signal-to-noise ratio, both abbreviated SNR,  to be able to understand speech. People with normal hearing need a 3 dB SNR, but those with hearing loss need a 7 dB SNR or even a 15 dB SNR to be able to understand speech.

Older analog hearing aids amplified all sounds, so they didn’t help users understand speech in a noisy environment, because all sounds were amplified. But newer digital hearing aids, with directional and tunable features, claim to have solved this problem.

I haven’t seen studies of this in peer-reviewed journals, only claims from the manufacturers. Hearing aid users have told me the costly digital hearing aids are better, but still nowhere near as good as normal hearing.

If the new hearing aids discussed in the report linked above become available commercially, they are likely to cost even more than the latest digital hearing aids, which can cost up to $8,000 for a pair.

Here’s a thought: Instead of requiring people with hearing loss to drop $8,000 for the privilege of understanding speech in public spaces, why not make restaurants and stores quieter? That would make everyone more comfortable in the space, and would help everyone understand speech.

And the simplest way of making a restaurant or store costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Acoustic vehicle alerts are a problem

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by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition’s Jeanine Botta presented a paper on acoustic vehicle alerts, also known as horn-based alerts, on May 13, 2019, at the Acoustical Society of America’s 177th meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Acoustic vehicle alerts are a problem because they are capable of disrupting sleep and interrupting concentration. In most vehicles, the alerts can be turned off or can be configured to use flashing lights instead of a sound. But not all horn-based alerts are easily reconfigured.

In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers recommended that automakers install “an externally audible or visual alert” to warn drivers of an engine that has been left running, as a means of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning. In response, some automakers used horn sounds to comply with the standard. This decision did not consider driver behavior or technical errors, such as drivers starting a car and getting out to brush snow off a windshield, or a passenger with a second key remaining in a car. This paper examined posts in online forums that include those authored by car owners seeking technical advice about turning off this horn-based alert. One frequently cited reason was concern over waking nearby neighbors.

In February 2019, Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced legislation requiring automatic engine shutoff in all vehicles in certain situations. The Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology Act, or PARK IT Act, is supported by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Center for Auto Safety, Safety Research and Strategies, and Consumer Reports.

And in California, where I live, where there are 14.5 million registered motor vehicles, it’s actually illegal for a horn to be used other than to avoid an accident or as a burglar alarm.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The design of sound notifications

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Gabriela Barkho, The Observer, writes about the designers who create the “undeniably annoying” sound notifications used in mobile technology. Barkho notes that most of us shut off the noisy notification that tells us someone is trying to call us, replacing the ringtone with vibrate, but what of other sound notifications?

Barkho writes that “[t]he new age of mobile sound is as much about representing the app’s brand and mission as it is about the user experience.” Ouch. The thought of fighting your way through a crowded room with everyone holding a bleating cell phone is horrifying. Fortunately, however, designers recognize that sounds can annoy. Says Josh Mobley, a composer and sound designer, “[t]he trick is to make a sound that people will hear that isn’t going to annoy the shit out of them every time it plays.” Hear, hear.

While we are happy to learn that designers are aware of the problems posed by annoying sound notifications, what will happen when every app demands sound notifications that brand stand out? Imagine the horrorscape of competing notifications, with each designer trying to make their audio stand out. How will people cope when they can never have an uninterupted moment?

Maybe they won’t have to.

Why? Because according to Chris Kyriakakis, professor of electrical and computer engineering/systems and director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at Univeristy of Southern California, the next big thing in sound notifications is spatialized sound. Kyriakakis calls spatialized notifications “a great leap forward” that would allow a user to use direction to decipher communication. How? He imagines that “a ding from front and center of your headphones could signal an urgent text, while a softer one from the back-end could be a less important notification.”

If it’s true that sound spatialization is the future, then maybe this brave new world of sound notifications won’t be as horrific as one might imagine. Among other things, Kyriakakis envisions spatialization with headphone use. Sure, city streets may be even more difficult to navigate as we weave our way around battalions of headphone-wearing people meandering in the streets, focused on distinguishing a ping from a beep  But at least we wont have to hear it.

 

 

How to deal with a snorer

Photo credit: Joshua Hayworth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Helmut of NoisyWorld tests the “snore blocking performance” of two Bose noise-cancelling headphones and declares the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 a winner.  Says Helmut, “[t]he Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones (QC35) block[ed] out enough of even loud snoring to allow me fall and stay asleep.”

If you have a partner or roommate who snores, click the link to learn Helmut’s “recipe” for snore-blocking sleep!

The scourge that is electric hand dryers

Photo credit: Travis Wise licensed under CC BY 2.0

Llyod Alter, the design editor at Treehugger, recently asked whether Dyson electric hand dryers were “the world’s worst design object.” In his post, Alter quotes Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas News, who called the Dyson Airblade “the most abhorrent work of design in recent memory.”  What drove Lamster to this conclusion?  Noise was first and foremost. Said Lamster:

For starters, the Dyson Airblade is deafening. Running a Dyson Airblade is the aural equivalent of standing on an airport runway while a 747 throttles up for takeoff. That’s because the machine works not by using heat, but by blowing air at such velocity that it “scrapes” the water off your hands. (This is its supposed advantage over conventional, hot-air hand dryers, which are also awful.)

Alter eventually disagrees with Lamster after doing an analysis that compares the global warming burden of electric hand dryers versus paper towels. Not surprisingly, the hand dryer over its life time produces a smaller burden than using paper towels over the same period. Of course, we think one should also weigh the consequences of having “aerosolized fecal matter” spewed about, but maybe we are just a bit too sensitive.

So, is the Dyson the world’s worst design object? We say no.  Why?  Because that title belongs to the Xlerator, our hand drying nemesis.

Sound strategy

Photo credit: Robin Hall licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I know a good line when I steal one, but I always give credit. This article in EFA magazine has both a great title and good information about designing spaces in which older people can converse more easily.

The principles of universal design state that all facilities should be designed to be used by everyone–young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny, and completely abled or not–and the design of the space should include its soundscape. So why not apply these principles to all interior spaces–and not just spaces dedicated for older peopleand design spaces that allow everyone to speak and be heard?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Obesity recognized as a disability rights issue, is hearing loss next?

Photo credit: Jennifer Morrow licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article by Kim Severson in the New York Times discusses challenges very obese people face when eating in restaurants–many times they are too large to fit comfortably in the seats–and what restaurants are doing to accommodate them.

When will restaurants also make accommodations for those with hearing loss, who find it difficult if not impossible to communicate when the ambient noise levels are too high?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Ford designs noise-proof kennels for noise-hating dogs

Photo credit: Ford Europe

Ford has designed a noise-cancelling kennel aimed at easing the anxiety and fear dogs experience during fireworks displays. It’s attractive and no doubt achieves its goal, but it’s also an expensive piece of kit that will be out of reach for most dog owners.

So kudos to Ford for looking out for man’s best friend, but why don’t we protect all dogs by demanding quiet fireworks instead?

San Francisco’s BART has been made quieter

Photo credit: Luis Villa del Campo licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article by Dianne de Guzman, SFgate.com, reports that the San Francisco area’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system trains have been made quieter after repairs to track and wheels. More importantly, BART has ordered 775 new cars to be delivered in 2022, and these cars have specifically been designed to be quieter.

I have hyperacusis.  Sounds that don’t bother others are uncomfortable or even painful to me. I rode BART from the airport to downtown on a recent trip to San Francisco. It was certainly quieter than the subways in New York and London, but I still put on my noise-cancelling headphones (which were in my backpack for the flight up to SFO) because it was loud enough to be uncomfortable for me. I didn’t measure the sound pressure level, but I would estimate it to be 80-85 decibels, and that’s loud enough to cause hearing loss.

Subway noise is a problem in many cities, New York and London among them. But as New York City’s newest subway line and BART show, public rail transit can be made quieter. As The Quiet Coalition’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD, wrote: if there’s a will to make subways quieter, there’s certainly a way. This isn’t rocket science, simply bread-and-butter acoustic engineering.

And that’s perhaps the most important point. There seems to be a growing awareness that urban noise is a problem, and that it’s actually relatively easy and not all that expensive to make cities quieter.

Because if the subway sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

It’s no secret–we don’t like delivery drones

Photo credit: Sam Churchill licensed under CC BY 2.0

Or, at the least, the idea of fleets of drones delivering drek no one really needs while polluting our environment with a constant high-pitched whirr.  Here’s a post about this avoidable dystopian future from January:

We have written about why we think wide scale use of delivery drones will not happen here, here, here, and here.  And now we have to repeat ourselves, as we share a recent report by Mariella Moon, Engadget, about how Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, can’t unleash its delivery drones onto the world until it remedies “one of the biggest complaints about it first.” The complaint, of course, is that the drones are noisy.  Moon writes that people who live “directly under the drones’ path in rural Australia where they’re current being tested described the sound they make as ‘chainsaw gone ballistic.’”

Really? Surely a small drone can’t be that horrible? Except it’s not just one drone, it’s a fleet of drones, and yes, it is horrible. Moon writes:

Apparently, the machines create so much noise that people don’t even use their yards anymore. In addition, dog owners are avoiding areas where they pass, because the drones make their dogs nervous. Not to mention, the noise could trigger PTSD symptoms in military veterans.

So Wing is going to try to make a quieter drone. In the meantime, it is slowing down the drones and trying to vary the flight paths so that they don’t continue to enrage the poor souls who live near their testing facility. Fortunately for the rest of us, Moon notes that “it’s going to take a while” before Wing can design that mythical quiet drone.

Meanwhile we wonder what compelling need is being served by drone delivery. Sure, being able to deliver life saving medicine to a remote location would be fabulous, but let’s be realistic, most drones are going to deliver consumer goods or fast food and the drones are meant to reduce human labor costs and encourage impulse buying. That is, there is no compelling need. It’s all just a lot of noise.