KEY POINTS

  • Using hearing aids can be hard if it's noisy or crowded
  • Researchers have found a way to eliminate noise from loudspeakers
  • This way, the user can focus on a nearby conversation

It can sometimes be hard for people who use hearing aids when they're in a crowded place or if there are many sources of sound. A team of researchers has found a way to turn hearing aids into "selective" noise-canceling devices.

Hearing aids are electronic devices that some people wear in or behind their ears to essentially make some sounds louder. It helps someone who has hearing loss to fully engage in their daily activities.

However, there are some situations wherein it may still be difficult to hear, even with such assistive listening devices, the Acoustical Society of America noted in a news release. For instance, if a user is in a crowded place or if there is music blasting from the speakers, it may be hard to actually hear a nearby conversation.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, one possible way to solve this problem is by turning the hearing aid into a sort of noise-canceling device. Ryan Corey, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, presented the unique method at the 182nd meeting of the Acoustical Society of America on Wednesday.

In the presentation, titled "Turn the music down! Repurposing assistive listening broadcast systems to remove nuisance sounds," Corey described how he and his colleagues found a way to essentially filter out a source of noise, specifically noise from a loudspeaker or broadcast system, to help make sounds from a nearby conversation clearer.

The researchers did this by pairing the hearing aid with the broadcast speaker. This then allowed them to cancel the sound coming from it, leaving only the sound that the user needs to hear.

"This project is a form of selective noise cancellation," Corey said in the news release. "Noise-canceling headphones, like the kind that are popular for airplanes, are designed to cancel out everything. In this system, we only want to cancel a specific sound, like the music playing over the speakers, but let other sounds through."

It can work both indoors and outdoors, wherever a loudspeaker is present, and it's designed to be "seamless." For future work, Corey aims to give hearing aid users "even more control" of what they need to hear by eliminating noise and enhancing selected ones.

Hearing loss is said to be the "third most common chronic physical condition" in the U.S., with 30 million Americans estimated to have hearing loss in both ears from 2001 to 2008. However, only one in five people who could benefit from using hearing aids actually uses one, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Hearing Aids Hearing aids sit ready to be fitted by the Starkey Foundation at Lesotho Cooperative College in Maseru, Lesotho, Oct. 10, 2013. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Jackson