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Seeing in the Dark: New app improves calls for people with hearing loss

by Belo Cipriani

During his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983, film director Larry Guterman found himself at an extremely loud party. The boisterous festivity left him with ringing in both ears for about a week - ultimately pushing him to see a doctor.

"I went to get checked," said Guterman, "and they found some mild loss, about 35dB, in one of my ears, at 2kHz."

That first visit to the audiologist marked Guterman's hearing decline. Over the next few years, he experienced gradual hearing loss - triggering him to try everything to keep his ears from getting worse.

"I went to Mass. Eye and Ear in Boston, the House Group in Los Angeles, where they pioneered the cochlear implant, UCSD, UCSF, Stanford, etc.," he said.

"After ruling out acoustic neuromas and Meniere's disease," he continued, "each doctor gave me a different diagnosis - from cochlear otosclerosis to autoimmune disease to genetic or congenital causes - with no treatment."

While Guterman's cause of hearing loss was uncertain, what was clear to him was he had to adapt to his condition - something he admitted was not easy.

"I think some of the most anxiety-ridden situations I experienced included being in phone meetings, or being in business meetings at a restaurant or in a crowded environment, where it became harder to understand what others were saying. Work situations where there was critical information I needed to hear or process - that was nerve-wracking," he said.

Despite the challenges he faced as a result of his impairment, Guterman, 54, managed to launch a successful career in the film industry. He has collaborated with Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard and worked on such projects as "Antz" and "Cats & Dogs."

But as Guterman's career took off, he began to grow frustrated with the limitations of hearing devices.

"I was starting to have trouble understanding on phone calls even with my hearing aids," he said. "I'd get feedback, they were awkward to use with headsets, etc. I tried several different hearing aids with streaming from the phone through streamers. But, I couldn't get the speech discrimination I needed and they were too expensive to buy just to use as regular hearing aids for ambient situations.

"So," he continued, "I started taking my hearing aids out and using earbuds to talk on the phone. The problem, of course, was that I wasn't getting any shaping of the speech signal and things sounded too muffled."

Guterman, an LGBT ally, joined forces with Jody Winzelberg, Au.D., former chief of audiology at Stanford Children's Health, to create San Francisco-based SonicCloud, an app for iOS that puts hearing aid technology on the iPhone.

One of SonicCloud's investors is gay actor Sean Hayes - who many readers know as "Jack" from "Will & Grace" - and who also stars in a funny commercial about the app.

Unlike sound amplifying apps that only work for in-person conversations and for mild hearing loss, SonicCloud can help people with severe hearing loss experience clear conversations over the phone. It is currently the only app that can customize sound on a phone call according to the unique needs of each person.

"Our technology stack includes much more than an app," Guterman said. "We've built a highly accurate hearing assessment tool, a cloud-based signal processing engine, and a fully functional, proprietary VoIP calling service that works not only on the phone (mobile), but also (currently in beta) on the desktop, and that uses the data captured by the hearing assessment tool to personalize audio on phone calls to the user's unique hearing profile."

Guterman said that while SonicCloud's first product is in telephony, the company plans to expand and cover all things sound.

The SonicCloud app is available in the Apple app store. You can learn more about the technology at http://www.soniccloud.com . To check out SonicCloud's humorous commercial with Hayes, go to https://soniccloud.com/launch/ .

Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, an award-winning journalist, the prize-winning author of "Blind: A Memoir" and "Midday Dreams," and the spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.

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