“Voices were not louder but the sound definition was crisper and far easier to understand.” This is what Francis Masserick said when I asked him to sum up his overall experiences of using the newly developed Goshawk Speech Platform.
Francis is 65 years old and has hearing loss. He was one of 33 volunteers who participated in the first clinical trials of a new type of telephone technology that modifies the signal on a telecoms or IP network so the sound coming through your telephone handset matches your hearing ability.
The trials, which were funded by the Wellcome Trust, took place on the Isle of Man in November and December last year. It is believed to be the first time that telephone technology has allowed sound to be digitally modified to reflect the hearing needs of the user.
I was privileged to be involved in the innovative project, which was a collaboration between Goshawk Communications, the Isle of Man Department of Health and Social Care’s Audiology Service and the Island’s leading mobile phone provider, Manx Telecom.
The role of Ideas for Ears was to independently monitor the experiences of the trial participants, capturing their feedback on how easy they found making and receiving calls once their phone was set up with the modified signal.
The aim was to find out if the Goshawk Speech Platform resulted in improved speech intelligibility – i.e. did it make conversation crisper and clearer so it was easier to understand?
The trial results
Experiences were monitored carefully and feedback was exciting. The vast majority participants found they experienced improved clarity and that this was helping them on calls.
As well as improved clarity, participants reported benefits from not having to struggle to use their mobile phone with their hearing aid. Mostly, this was because they didn’t need to use their hearing aid at all as the modified sound was of sufficient clarity and volume to allow them to simply put the phone straight to their ear.
For some, it was the first time in a long time they no longer had to use the speaker phone function to take calls. It meant they could take calls in public places again.
The participants were aged between 27 and 81 and all but three had hearing loss of a mild to severe level.
As to be expected with the innovation of a new and complex technology, the trial was not without issues. For some participants, including some of those reporting improved clarity, there were issues like echo, sound interference, delays in sound and some text message issues.
These issues are now being remedied ready for a second trial expected to take place in the summer this year.
What some of the trial participants told me
Alison Greenwood, 50, hearing loss in both ears “The improved clarity made a huge difference to me. I wish it could be like that all the time.”
John Boyes, 82, hearing loss in both ears “I have two sons and the younger son I find difficult to hear. I called him as soon as I got the phone set up and I could hear him so much clearer on the phone than in person. It was fantastic!”
Nigel Dempsey Moore, 45, hearing loss in both ears “I was very excited to be included in the Goshawk trial as I could hear people clearer. They didn’t sound as though they were in a tunnel speaking. The sound was clearer across the range and I didn’t need to keep asking ‘what did you say?’ or have to pretend to hear them or try to fill in the blanks. It really made a difference. I could hear in the wind and I could hear people speaking fast. Quality was superb and took my hearing condition into account.”
Catherine Hayhow, 54, hearing loss in both ears: “For me the pilot took me from concentrating on hearing and distinguishing words, to being able to focus on the content of the conversation – it fundamentally changed my relationship with my mobile phone. I had previously relied almost exclusively on text as a means of communication with my phone, and allowed me to actually have a conversation. Conversations became easier and not so tiring.”
Francis Masserick, 65, moderate hearing loss in both ears: “I am absolutely certain that for the period I was using the replacement SIM card in my mobile phone the quality of reception was greatly improved. Voices were not louder but the sound definition, as near as I can describe it, was crisper and far easier to understand.”
Denzil Williams, 48, hearing loss in both ears: “Overall my experience in the trial was good. Certainly the clarity of sound was improved over the standard service, particularly in relation to the nuances of tone and pitch. The actual service was of course subject to the normal vagaries of signal strength and consequently when signal strength was poor the Goshawk benefits were diminished. I look forward to using Goshawk (or its successor) again in the future. I work as a director of operations for an insurance company, hence anything that helps me with my hearing and consequently my work is much appreciated.”
The cusp of something special
Matthew Turner, CEO of Goshawk Communications, has cautiously welcomed the trial results. He said: “We have succeeded in demonstrating as a global first that it is possible to process a live voice signal specific to the hearing needs of a mobile phone user. This is very good news but there is still some work to do.
“Some technical issues cropped up during the trial, mostly to do with the technical limitations imposed due to this being a trial situation, but which nonetheless must be ironed out. We want the Goshawk Speech Platform to bring about significant improvement in the way people with hearing loss are able to use the phone so we want to get things absolutely right. I believe we are on the cusp of producing something very special.”
Tom Meageen from Manx Telecom, the leading communication solutions provider on the Isle of Man, commented: “We believe that this is the first demonstration of this type of technology anywhere in the world. Manx Telecom is proud to be part of this pioneering work to help people with impaired hearing, many of whom will be our loyal customers. We are delighted to be working with Goshawk Communications and believe that the results of this research will represent a significant step forward in using technology to help hearing impaired people to maximise their experience with their personal mobile devices.”