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Interview with Victor Bray, Ph.D. & Michelle Hicks, Ph.D., Sonic Innovations

Victor Bray, PhD, Michelle Hicks, PhD

March 10, 2008

Topic: Velocity™ - New platform, advanced features
Paul Dybala: Hello, everybody. This is Dr. Paul Dybala with Audiology Online, and today I have the pleasure of meeting with two folks today from our good friends at Sonic Innovations, Drs. Victor Bray and Michelle Hicks. Welcome! If you could, Victor, give us a little bit of a background of the work you do for Sonic Innovations.

Victor Bray: Certainly. I am the Chief Audiology Officer at Sonic Innovations and, believe it or not, this month makes ten years that I have been here. I moved from California out to Salt Lake City to help start up this little company with new ideas about signal processing. It's a real milestone for me right now to see a ten year anniversary come around, from the little company that was never supposed to be able to do very much and to now see it's strong presence worldwide with so many customers.

It feels good to be here this long. Now, in our tenth year, we are launching our fourth generation signal processing platform, which I think is astounding, really. Since our first -generation NATURA in 1998, we are already to our fourth generation signal processing platform with Velocity.

Dybala: Michelle, could you give me a little bit of background about yourself and what you do for Sonic Innovations?

Michelle Hicks: I am a Senior Research Audiologist, and I have been with Sonic for just over one year. Before that, my background had always been in psychoacoustics. So, I really have more of a hearing scientist background, but I am also an audiologist, so coming to work here was a nice mixture of those two things, being able to be an audiologist and be a scientist at the same time.

Dybala: Let's get into this fourth generation platform that you have with Sonic Innovations. The product name is Velocity, and it is Sonic Innovation's new premium hearing aid. Victor, just to start with you, could you give us kind of a basic overview? You mentioned this is your fourth generation product. What's different about the technology that drives this product?

Bray: Paul, we are very excited about this new platform that we're working on. It's an advanced level of digital signal processing that we've been able to get into in this hearing aid. The people who have been working with Sonic Innovations for a while know that we launched with a nine-channel platform, and we brought that up to a 16-channel platform, and we now have gone to a 24-channel compression system.

It's 24 channels of fast-acting compression combined with 24 channels of noise reduction. Of course, we've always had a fantastic noise reduction algorithm. So by going from 16 to 24 channels, we've added eight more channels and basically revved up the signal processing power on our hearing aid by 50%.

So 24 channels of noise reduction, 24 channels of compression, all discrete, narrow-band channels running about 333 Hz wide, which means several parallel narrow-band independent compressors.

Dybala: Tell me about the noise reduction algorithm that you have in this system.

Bray: We've got three layers of logic that are running in the noise reduction algorithm in Velocity. The first level is a noise reduction algorithm that will adapt itself based upon the signal-to-noise ratio within the compression channel. Our second generation logic that we brought out a few years ago not only monitors the signal-to-noise ratio, but looks at the overall level of the noise so that you can further fine tune the adjustment of the noise reduction algorithm.

Now this current algorithm, which is really a third-generation noise reduction algorithm, says that on top of those other two factors, we'll evaluate the audiogram and set the amount of noise reduction in the low, mid, mid-high and high frequencies based upon the amount of hearing loss. So we call this iNR™: input-based noise reduction. It's a very sophisticated signal processing system.

Dybala: When you're talking about how iNR relates to the audiogram, I would assume that the noise reduction would be more aggressive where there is less of a loss and less aggressive with more of a loss?

Bray: That's exactly right, Paul. We found in our clinical trials over the years that just about everybody likes noise reduction, but subjects like it in different amounts and for different reasons. People with better hearing like a lot more noise reduction because it makes listening through the hearing aid a quieter experience. On the other hand, people with greater amounts of hearing loss don't like to have too much in the way of noise reduction because they want environmental awareness, even of steady-state noises. So we generally reduce the strength of the noise reduction algorithm as the hearing loss increases.

Dybala: The more hearing loss you have, any audible cue, I would assume, is better than no audible cue, correct?

Bray: That's exactly right. When we started developing our logic, we began with the strategy of greater hearing loss gets greater noise reduction. Through the field trials we have done over the years, we've learned that this counter-intuitive implementation makes sense to the client when they're wearing the hearing aid, and it works beautifully.

Dybala: You also have some new directional algorithms with Velocity. Could you talk a little bit about this?

Bray: Sure, Paul. We have worked very hard to make this hearing aid state-of-the-art in directionality, and so we have one automatic directionality algorithm and three adaptive directionality algorithms. When I say automatic, I mean changing from omni to directional mode.

This hearing aid does not do that by changing programs; it does it by changing the microphone response from omni to directional within the same program, depending upon the environmental conditions. That algorithm is paired with our adaptive directionality algorithm that will then change the polar pattern in response to where the sounds are coming from in the environment.

Dybala: It sounds like you're really trying to make the system smarter and find ways to make this simpler for people to use. I've heard you talk about this with your Universal program. Could you expand on that?

Bray: Well, that's exactly what we're doing. The automatic directionality, which we call "Auto-Morphic™ Switching", and one of the adaptive directionality algorithms that we call "Focused Null Steering" are combined together with the compression and digital noise reduction to create what we call the "Universal" Program.

Universal, which is the Program One default on the Velocity hearing aid, allows the client to wear the hearing aid in a single memory mode. In quiet environments the hearing aid will go to omnidirectional and full amplification. As you get into the noisier environments, the noise reduction kicks in, the Auto-Morphic Switching takes it into directionality, and the Focused Null Steering will then align the polar patterns to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. So, all four of those algorithms are running in real time to create this Universal mode for a single-memory, fully automatic hearing aid.

Dybala: Thanks for that overview, Victor. Let's get into the clinical research that is performed at Sonic Innovations and has helped you to fine tune your algorithms. Michelle, I know you have an on-site research clinic right there at the Salt Lake City headquarters. Could you start off with a description of the facilities and what you do there?

Hicks: Sure. The setup that we have here allows us to do just about anything your standard clinic could do, plus quite a bit more. We have a couple of sound booths that allow us to do speech-in-noise testing. We have set-up a 5-speaker array and an 8-speaker array so we can test in multiple surround sound environments. One thing that we did with Velocity that was different from other testing we've done, was to set up the speakers and stimuli in such a way to specifically evaluate these automatic and adaptive directionality features.

In addition, we also have several different real-ear systems. We always try to make sure that our hearing aids are able to meet the targets that we expect them to meet, and we do this on several different systems, experimenting with different set-ups and various stimuli, in order to respond to questions from the field about our hearing aids.

And the most important part of what we do is that we fit the devices on individuals to wear them in their every-day environments. We are fortunate to have volunteers from our community come in to test-drive the hearing aids for us. Usually it's through word-of-mouth, and we have no shortage of subjects who are willing to participate. I think for Velocity, we had close to 75 people wearing devices before it was launched and another 25-30 since our initial launch last summer.

Dybala: I'd like to go back to what you mentioned before with the surround sound testing system. Can you go into what some of the results were with this new system and how Velocity's been able to work?

Hicks: For Velocity, we created three unique test environments for objective testing and subjective listening evaluations using variations on our surround sound test system. We needed to design environments and procedures that were more complex to fully evaluate all of the automatic and adaptive features working in Velocity.

Most of our objective testing used the Hearing-In-Noise Test, the HINT. First, we did traditional testing in a diffuse noise environment, using the five-speaker system. We have the speech coming from the front at 0 degrees, and uncorrelated noise presented simultaneously from the other four speakers, at 45, 135, 225, and 270 degrees. The purpose of this testing was to ensure improved performance in diffuse noise relative to the unaided condition, and that the Auto-Morphic Switching and Focused Null Steering was performing at least as well as a fixed directional program.

Second, to specifically test the functioning of the Auto-Morphic Switching and Focused Null Steering, we completed HINT testing with the noise source presented from various azimuths around the listener. For example, the speech was still coming from the front at 0 degrees, but the noise source would be to the sides at 90 and 270 degrees, or to the rear at 135 and 225 degrees. The purpose of this testing was to ensure that performance in these two conditions was equal to, or better than, the fixed directionality performance, demonstrating that that the Auto-Morphic Switching was engaging to directional mode, and that the Focused Null Steering was accurately locating the direction of the noise source.

Dybala: You mentioned earlier about an 8-speaker array. Is this the third test environment that you evaluated?

Hicks: That's correct. We also do quite a bit of bench-top verification, in addition to what our Engineering Department provides for us. We wanted to create a more difficult test environment to evaluate how well each of the algorithms worked independently and when combined in Velocity. With the 8-speaker system we created a simulation that sounds as though the noise is moving in a 360-degree circle around the room, while the speech is stationary from the front at 0 degrees. The hearing aid is placed on a stick, or on KEMAR, in the center of the room, and we make recordings of the output of the hearing aid with the various algorithms engaged. We can listen subjectively for sound quality, but also make signal-to-noise ratio measurements. We will be presenting these recordings at the AAA convention in Charlotte.

Dybala: Excellent. What were people saying while they were wearing the instrument? Did you have any real-world trials with the instrument where people would wear it for a week, or was it all testing in the booth?

Hicks: People wore these hearing aids over several months with this project. We really received some good long-term feedback from these individuals. Some of them had hearing aid experience; some did not. We had a wide variety of ages and lifestyles represented. We were also testing all configurations of hearing loss and all device styles. We really tried to measure all possible configurations that would exist in the field.

When we allowed them to have several programs, all possible combinations in fact, many of them preferred having just that one Universal program at the conclusion of all of this. The comments that we got back indicated that the sound quality was excellent, as well. We will be presenting the objective and subjective data from the Velocity field trials at the AAA convention in Charlotte.

Dybala: It's always easier to make a new user happy than making an experienced user happy. So, that says a lot. What else can you tell us about the Velocity?

Hicks: There are two new things in the hearing aid which are designed for customer utility. One is the Automatic Telephone feature that puts it into a telephone mode automatically when the phone is put up to the aid so they don't have to press a button manually. The second is that the hearing aid talks to the client, which is a feature we call "Voice Alerts." It can tell the user what program the aid is in, so instead of alerting with a certain number of beeps, it says, "Telephone."

Dybala: Tell us more about the Voice Alerts.

Hicks: The Voice Alerts are heard whenever you change the program or when you have a low battery. This was actually quite useful when we were testing subjects, because as I mentioned, we put them through several different configurations and the hearing aid would be running for a long time. Most users who had multiple programs preferred the Voice Alerts. Surprisingly, even the experienced users wanted the Voice Alerts left on.

Dybala: Interesting. You also mentioned the Automatic Telephone?

Hicks: Yes, the Automatic Telephone was a bit of a learning curve for us because we didn't have a lot of prior experience with it. I'll admit up-front that we actually had a little trouble with this feature early on. We were kind of surprised that we weren't getting as good a satisfaction rating as we'd first hoped.

We found that placement of the magnet on the phone was critical for success. Now, not all phones need this magnet, but getting the subject to place this magnet correctly on the phone, which triggers the automatic switching, was important. We found it was most useful to have a demonstration before they left the office with a phone showing them the "sweet spot" of where to hold the telephone so it engages the hearing aid each and every time they pick up the telephone.

It was a learning curve both for us and for them, and we found that by taking just a couple of minutes demonstrating it in the office, in terms of the placement of the magnet and placement on the telephone, our satisfaction rating went up.

Dybala: Great tip! These sound like excellent features and thank you for sharing the data coming out to support the effectiveness of this product. With that we will need to wrap up our conversation today.

As always, if any of our readers need additional information on the Velocity from Sonic Innovations or just the company in general, you can log on to Audiology Online and check out Sonic Innovation's Web Channel.

In addition, we have an e-Learning session that Victor actually has produced on this very same topic entitled Velocity: A New and Novel Automatic Hearing Aid, which can also be found on their Web Channel. It's a full one-hour presentation with CEUs available.

To learn more about Sonic Innovations you can always visit their Web site directly at and find more information.

So again, Victor, Michelle, thanks for taking time to meet with me today.

Bray: Our pleasure.

Hicks: Thanks so much, Paul.

About Sonic Innovations

One reason that Sonic Innovations has experienced great success over the years is because of their Digital Signal Processing platform. This platform leads to small, reliable, and durable hearing aids that Sonic Innovations provides to the hearing impaired population. Sonic Innovations has a wide line of hearing aids ranging from their entry level hearing aid, the Tribute, to their premium digital hearing aid, the Velocity, which are both available from CIC to BTE styles. For more information on Velocity and the entire Sonic Innovations line, visit the Sonic Innovations website or call your local representative.
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victor bray

Victor Bray, PhD

Chief Audiology Officer

michelle hicks

Michelle Hicks, PhD

Senior Research Audiologist

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