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Augmented Hearing: Improving hearing for everyone

Meet Michael, Mette, and Martin: Their start-up Augmented Hearing uses artificial intelligence to improve audio experiences and speech comprehension.

Through our numerous virtual encounters during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned how important sound quality is for video calls. Noise, such as passing cars in the background, a barking dog, or random clattering, can drive others in the call crazy. To help participants of virtual meetings understand one another better — at least acoustically — the start-up Augmented Hearing has developed a product. Better acoustic understanding frees up more cognitive resources to actually understand what is being said and reflect on it.

The software that Augmented Hearing is working on is a powerful cross-platform solution. It can be implemented everywhere between a microphone and a speaker where the speech quality may suffer. The software can run in the cloud, in a stand-alone app, embedded into someone else’s app or in a chip as small as a fingernail. The range of functions the software provides is huge: It can not only block out background noise but it can also improve the sound quality of the person speaking.

Some devices on the market can already do that — at least to some extent. “If you buy Apple AirPods, for example, they offer the ability to turn on and off transparency,” explains Michael Kai Petersen, co-founder of Augmented Hearing. “Users can adjust certain settings on their headphones, but these are usually pre-programmed defaults.”

However, the start-up Augmented Hearing is taking it one step further and is on a mission to customize the listening experience completely using AI. They found that one in four people has difficulties following a conversation simply because they can’t understand others — first just acoustically but that inherents a difficulty in understanding each other intelligibly. The brain needs to work even harder to filter out noise. The longer a conversation or call is, the more strenuous it becomes for the brain — and the more the listener misses, even though their ears are perfectly functional.

Michael Kai Petersen and his co-founders Mette L. Vestergaard Carstensen and Martin Bergmann met at Demant, the global market leader in hearing health. There, they were primarily working on products and devices designed to help people suffering from hearing loss connect with the world around them, such as hearing aids, hearing implants, diagnostics, and communications. “We actually met at the coffee machine,” Michael Kai Petersen says. “And that was where the idea developed that good products for hearing should not just benefit hearing-impaired people; we wanted to reach a broader audience with a start-up.” Petersen was also a professor at the Technical University of Denmark for a long time. Most recently, he was Head of Studies in Human-Centered AI there.

He, his co-founders, and two other employees have been working full-time at Augmented Hearing for a year now. In the future, their software will improve listening comprehension for people in all kinds of situations. AI models are being trained on speech features to enhance the vocal dynamics of each speaker, personalizing the amplification in the earbuds. The app running on the devices adds AI to the earbuds, allowing users to enhance speech over background noise automatically. Based on contextual preferences, voices are dynamically adjusted and amplified throughout the day by predicting users’ listening intentions. Via cloud solutions, AI-learned speech and amplification features are collected to automatically generate preferences for users in similar contexts.

“Developing all this takes time, but we have the advantage that each member of the team has very different experiences,” says Mette Carstensen. “For example, I studied biomedical engineering, I’m a musician, but I’ve also worked as a management consultant.” Martin Bergmann adds, “I worked at Demant as a software engineer and project manager, and now, I’m involved in app programming.” Together, the three founders have more than 30 years of industry experience.

They are in discussions with various companies about Augmented Hearing. The focus is less on commercial headphones that will be bought and used by end customers and more on companies that can imagine integrating this software into their existing products. So far, that’s still top secret. “But by the end of the year, we hope that our software will already be being used in products,” Michael Kai Petersen tells us.

Follow Augmented Hearing’s journey on LinkedIn.

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