Anyone parenting a member the iPod generation has lost track of the number of times she’s said “Take those earbuds out of your ears so you can hear me!” So how weird is it going to be if some years from now that same generation is saying to us, “Put those earbuds in your ears so you can hear me!”
Real Clarity, introduced by SoundFest, Franklin, Mass., at DemoFall 2013, is a brilliant concept. It’s the hearing aid for people who don’t really need a hearing aid. Yet. Or maybe they simply want to pretend they don’t need a hearing aid. Or don’t want the expense of a hearing aid. But they still need help hearing a conversation in a noisy room.
The app asks you to input your age then adjusts its algorithms to optimize its audio enhancements accordingly. People who have a more precise diagnosis of hearing deficiencies can set the app’s parameters manually. Then you put in your earbuds, set the mobile device down in front of you, and it will raise the volume on the conversation and lower the volume on the noise around you.
Cofounder Mark Eisner says that there are other apps that do amplification with some noise reduction, but because they are more generalized, they don’t compensate well for age-related hearing loss. The algorithms that detect and clarify the sounds of speech, he says, were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; SoundFest’s challenge was making them run fast enough so the delay introduced didn’t cause a perceptible echo. He says that the typical delay time in the Real Clarity app is 5 milliseconds. The app will sell for about $30 when it is available towards the end of the year.
How well does it work? I’m not sure. The onstage demo, using generated background noise, seemed effective. When I tried it myself in the somewhat noisy demo hall, I didn’t see much of a difference. But the room wasn’t so noisy that I had any trouble following a normal-level conversation to begin with. But fortunately I’m not the target market, at least not quite yet.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.