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Interview with Rick Darnaby, Director of Corporate Development for Sound ID

Rick Darnaby

August 7, 2006
Topic: The Personal Sound System
Dybala: Today, I am speaking with Rick Darnaby, Director of Corporate Development of Sound ID. Rick, thank you for taking time to meet with me today, I know that many of our readers are interested in hearing about new products, especially when they encompass wireless technology.

Darnaby: My pleasure. We have an exciting new product that was just released and I think that many hearing professionals will find that it fits a nice niche in their client base.

Dybala: Tell us a little bit about your background and then about Sound ID itself.

Darnaby: I have previously been involved with a number of large global businesses in a variety of industries. This has ranged from serving as a General Manager for Motorola to President of the NutraSweet group. I have also spent time guest lecturing for various business graduate programs including Harvard and Northwestern's Kellogg school of business. I joined Sound ID in April of 2005.

Sound ID was founded in January of 2000, and even though it is a young company, it has a management team that consists of some of the leading minds in hearing healthcare. This starts with our founder, Dr. Rodney Perkins. As you may know, Dr. Perkins is a well known otologist and entrepreneur and is the founder of such companies as ReSound Corporation, Laserscope and Collagen Corporation. He currently serves as the Chairman and Chief Medical Officer for Sound ID. Additionally, we have Dr. Chas Pavlovic who was formerly the senior vice president of research and development at GN ReSound serving as our Chief Technology Officer. Dr. Pavlovic has built a team of industry leading scientists in the field of psychoacoustics to further develop our sound processing algorithms. This is really just the tip of the iceberg as we really have a great team in place.

Dybala: What is the goal of Sound ID and how is it trying to differentiate itself from other companies in the hearing healthcare industry?

Darnaby: The goal of Sound ID is to develop a new category of personal sound enhancement products that emphasize communication and connectivity and work to blur the difference between solutions for persons with hearing impairment and persons with normal hearing.

As I mentioned above, our founder, Dr. Rodney Perkins, was an ear surgeon for 40 years and would often hear patients complaining about having difficulty in noisy environments. These people would typically be candidates for hearing aids but they did not feel like they had enough hearing loss or simply did not want to wear hearing aids.

We talked to people in this target segment and asked, "What are the most common situations where you have problems hearing?" We found three typical situations. The first one is trying to communicate in noisy restaurants, the second is watching television and the third is when using a mobile phone. The other interesting trend that we are seeing is that issues with mobile phones are growing. Penetration of the mobile phone in the baby boomer segment is actually higher than it is in the younger segments.

Dybala: That is an interesting statistic.

Darnaby: We now have this mass of humanity between 45 and 60 years of age that's active and aging every year. Many will have hearing problems, but do not want hearing aids. Our solution capitalizes on some emerging trends in mobile telephony to help these persons.

Dybala: These emerging trends you mention are the ubiquity of the mobile phone and the growth of Bluetooth enabled mobile phones and headsets, correct?

Darnaby: Correct. Not only are mobile phones becoming more and more commonplace, there is the high-tech effect of these and other ear devices. We like to call it the, "I gotta have something in my ear to look cool" effect. The iPod and other such devices have stimulated that trend. I also want to mention that the rise in Bluetooth enabled headsets is being influenced by motor vehicle laws that now require you to use a hands free device when driving and talking on the phone. There are four states that require that now - New York being one of them, and very soon this will be spreading to all states in the US.

Dybala: The total number of Bluetooth radios shipped in 2005 was 328 million units and mobile phones and headsets consisted of 81% of the total (F. Thomson, IMS Research, personal communication, July 7, 2006). I have seen an estimate that the shipments of Bluetooth enabled devices for 2006 is currently around 10 million units per week and again the majority of this is in Bluetooth enabled mobile phones and headsets (IMS, 2006). At this rate over 500 million Bluetooth radios will ship in 2006!

Darnaby: Driving on those trends, our goal was to create a product that was hip and cool. We wanted to create a comfortable Bluetooth device that is stable in the ear, but also provides lots of functionality for several difficult listening situations.

Dybala: Let's get into the Sound ID product then!

Darnaby: Our solution is what we call the Sound ID Personal Sound System (PSS). Fundamentally, there are two operational parts of the system, the first being the ear module (See Figure 1). While the device is small, it provides some high-end sound processing capabilities.


Figure 1. The Sound ID ear module.

We also have the compact companion microphone that connects wirelessly to the ear module (See Figure 2). It can be worn by a significant other, or put in any location where you need to hear better from a distance or in a noisy situation.


Figure 2. The Sound ID companion microphone.

The way that this system works is that it uses Bluetooth to connect the ear module with the other parts of the system. I have provided an illustration in Figure 3 that we use in product training to show how Bluetooth connects everything together. One important thing to mention is that the ear module is programmable and so the hearing professional can enter a patient's audiogram so that customized sound can be provided to the user based on the amount of hearing loss.



Figure 3. How Bluetooth is used to connect devices in the PSS to the ear module.

Dybala: When I first heard about the PSS, I had assumed that it was mostly a solution for communicating on the phone, but it looks like it is much more than that.

Darnaby: Correct. The unit actually has 3 modes of operation, ambient mode, mobile phone mode and companion link mode (See Figure 4). The ambient mode is simply amplification based on the users hearing levels and adjusted and fit by the hearing care provider. We have high-end sound processing algorithms that include noise compensation and a directional microphone mode. The second mode enables the user to listen to their mobile phone via the ear module through the Bluetooth connection. Finally, we have the companion link mode. Sound is picked up by the external microphone and transmitted wirelessly to the ear module using Bluetooth. The external microphone could be put near the TV or it could be worn by a significant other in a restaurant. This third mode really makes a dramatic impact in noisy situations.



Figure 4. The three modes of the Personal Sound System.

Dybala: You mention that this can be programmed for a person with hearing loss. This technology also sounds like it could be helpful for persons with normal hearing.

Darnaby: I don't have hearing loss, and I use the PSS all the time.

Dybala: Interesting. Still, the focus of this device is for persons who need hearing help, but due to issues like stigma are not ready to wear a hearing aid.

Darnaby: While stigma is a big issue with hearing aids, there are other issues. Persons with milder losses may only feel like they need help in specific situations, or they may not need an all day solution. The PSS is great as we can provide situation specific solutions for the needs of the periodic user or the existing hearing aid user needing improved satisfaction communicating on a cell phone or in noise. At the same time, we do help with the stigma issue, as only the hearing professional and the user know that this "high-tech headset" is providing "hearing aid" capabilities.

Dybala: That's a great point. I have said before that if everyone were wearing some sort of ear-level audio device, there would be no hearing aid stigma (Dybala, 1999, 2006a, 2006b)! Therefore, I assume that you would not call the PSS a hearing aid, correct? As you suggest, we now we have a multi-functional audio device that happens to provide hearing aid type capabilities.

Darnaby: That's why we call it the Personalized Sound System. The key is the versatility of the device. People that buy this typically buy it for the mobile phone connection, more so than the fact than it's an amplification system. After they buy it though, they use it in ambient mode a lot. It's a really interesting interaction.

Dybala: How long does it take to fit the PSS on a patient?

Darnaby: Fitting this device can be done in a single visit instead of multiple visits. It takes about an hour or less for everything including the audiogram. A lot of that time is really spent simply showing people how to use the device and how to connect with the mobile phone and companion microphone. Programming of the device with our software is simple and quite fast.

Dybala: What is the cost to the patient for the PSS?

Darnaby: If you were to buy a linked product like an FM or a hearing aid plus an FM etc. they tend to run $4000 to $5000 for everything. Our system, the ear module and the companion microphone, is sold to consumers for $1500. The ear module can also be purchased alone for around $900.

Dybala: The PSS is available now?

Darnaby: Yes! We started selling the PSS in January 2006 to a couple of targeted areas in the US. This enabled us to work out any kinks and so we did our nationwide launch at AAA this year.

Dybala: Well, thank you for your time today, Rick. Just to wrap things up, if someone wanted to start dispensing the Sound ID PSS, what would they need to do?

Darnaby: Anyone who is interested in getting started with Sound ID can reach us at 866-SOUND ID. After purchasing the device, we have marketing support to contact people in their existing database, add a description in a quarterly news letter and place point of sale displays around the office.

Dybala: Well, thanks again and I enjoyed talking with you today. I appreciate your time.

Darnaby: My pleasure and thank you for coming by!

About Sound ID

Sound ID™ was founded with the mission to bring personalized sound to mainstream consumers. The Sound ID Personal Sound System™ is designed for mainstream consumers who would benefit from improved sound quality in noisy environments. We combine Bluetooth and noise compensation technologies, sound processing algorithms, techniques that improve signal-to-noise ratio and other audio science to deliver state-of-the-art personal sound. The cutting edge technology in the PSS combined with the personalization services of our Hearing Care Provider partners provide enhanced listening and communication clarity in noisy restaurants, automobiles, mobile phone conversations, public settings, meeting rooms, parties, even listening to television with family and friends. More information can be found at www.soundid.com or call 1 866 Sound ID.

References

Dybala, P.D. (1999). ELVAS (Ear Level Voice Activated System) Lives. Audiology and the New Millennium - A Special Issue of Audiology Today October, 2, 34.

Dybala, P.D. (2006a). Page 10 - ELVAS Sightings: Cochlear Implants and Hearing Aids get Wired. The Hearing Journal, 59(3), 10-15.

Dybala, P.D. (2006b, March 6). ELVAS Sightings - Hearing Aid or Headset? Audiology Online, Article 1542. Retrieved June 21, 2006, from the Articles Archive on http://www.audiologyonline.com. Direct access URL www.audiologyonline.com/articles/article_detail.asp?article_id=1542

IMS (2006, February 23). Astounding growth for Bluetooth. Retrieved June 21, 2006 from www.imsresearch.com/members/pr.asp?X=243