Augmented Listening Lab to Open at Stony Brook University

Andrew Singer joined Stony Brook University in Summer 2023 as dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Now, his former student and researcher, Manan Mittal, is moving to Long Island from Illinois to follow his professor and work in the Augmented Listening Laboratory at Stony Brook University, which will be the third of its kind.  

Singer and Mittal met at the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Singer, a Fox Family endowed professor, associate dean for innovation and entrepreneurship and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, supervised a team of researchers studying spatial acoustic signal processing at the Augmented Listening Lab. They are working to make hearing superhuman, which could benefit both the hearing impaired and the non-disabled.

Augmented listening is the practice of turning off the sounds of the environment except for what you want to hear. They use microphones, 3D printers, and an understanding of the ear and how its variations in shape, size, cartilage, and even earlobes affect the way each person hears. 

Their research is to help what they refer to as the “cocktail party problem.” Many people speaking in a room can cause confusion for the listener. This technology would enable the user to distinguish the speaker by using spatial cues for a particular listener. The researchers refer to this phenomenon as “listening enhancement.” Singer said, “We want to go far beyond what hearing aids can do.” 

The technology for this type of work is found in AirPods and phones. For example, Apple’s AirPods have the ability to amplify sound. “They allow you to load an audiogram onto your phone and personalize the output sound,” explained Mittal. “They also scan your ear for a personalized spatial sound experience.” 

The National Council on Aging released an article on how the aging population could receive hearing support from these devices. 

The researchers use 3D printers to create a “talking head” that replicates the human head, but with space necessary for upgrades. The head costs from $50 to $60, which is more cost-efficient, convenient and smaller than the $30,000 commercial grade units created with the same purpose. The researchers do not have to worry about moving the heads around, which makes them ideal for experiments. 

This concept could have a multi-purpose use. If the hearing aid algorithms can be advanced, then someone with severe hearing loss would be able to benefit from these algorithms. 

The team does not experiment on humans because it would be too time-consuming. “For experiments where we need perfect repetitions,” Singer said, “humans would not be able to produce the same audio experiment as well as robotic aids can. This process makes the research more accurate and provides a much simpler, automated way to conduct audio research.” 

The hope is that researchers around the world will be able to use these talking heads to develop better algorithms for hearing aids, assistive listening systems or to even enhance the listening experience of current audio products.

The lab will be set up in the next few weeks in the Heavy Engineering Building. 

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