A new Collaborative Research Centre is to be established at the University: the research project on “hearing acoustics” will receive around eight million euros in funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) over the next four years. The head of the CRC is professor of psychoacoustics Volker Hohmann.
Traffic noise, clattering crockery, ringing mobile phones: many people have difficulties following a conversation with this kind of background noise – including those who don’t really need a hearing aid. “Yet spoken communication is the basis for social participation,” stresses Prof. Dr. Volker Hohmann, who will lead the new Collaborative Research Centre titled “Hearing Acoustics: Perceptive Principles, Algorithms and Applications (HAPPAA)”. This large-scale project is planned for a 12-year period and at its centre is the interplay between people with impaired hearing and their acoustic environment. Together with his colleagues Hohmann – one of the principal investigators in the „Hearing4all“ Cluster of Excellence and winner of the German President's Award for Innovation in Science and Technology– aims to create the basis for improved hearing aids and Assistive Listening Systems. Other leading hearing research institutions participating in the CRC are the RWTH Aachen University, the Technical University of Munich, the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, the Jade University of Applied Sciences and Hörtech GmbH Oldenburg.
„In the new Collaborative Research Centre, Oldenburg hearing researchers will once again focus on their goal of providing people with impaired hearing with the best possible help. With this funding the German Research Foundation honours the outstanding national and international importance of our hearing research,” explained the University’s president, Prof. Dr. Dr. Hans Michael Piper.
Hearing as an active process
The “Hearing Acoustics” Collaborative Research Centre builds on the results of the research unit “Individualised Hearing Acoustics”, which Hohmann and Prof. Dr. Dr. Birger Kollmeier have led together since 2012 and which soon comes to an end. In this project the researchers of the University of Oldenburg, the Hörtech Centre of Competence, and the Jade University of Applied Sciences created the basis for optimal adaptation of hearing technologies to individual users and specific acoustic environments. The CRC now approved by the German Research Foundation will focus on the complex interaction between individuals with impaired hearing and their acoustic environment. “In real-life situations the hearing situation changes constantly because people react to voices and sounds. For instance, they turn their head towards the sound source or move their eyes,” Hohmann explains. He adds that up to now this interaction hadn’t been taken into account in hearing acoustics; hearing was seen as a passive process. Test persons at laboratories were instructed to move as little as possible. “This,” he says “is why many hearing aids work well in the lab, but less so in real situations.”
Plunging into a virtual environment
Hohmann and his colleagues refer to the dynamic interaction between the listener and their environment as the “acoustic communication loop”. For the first time they are now including this process in the hearing model. People whose hearing has already been impaired by the aging process but who don’t yet need a hearing aid can benefit from the improved understanding of this “hearing loop”. In order to comprehend its basic principles the team is researching models, algorithms and applications in three separate work areas with a total of twelve sub-projects. Building on the speech perception and hearing quality models in both people with normal and with impaired hearing, Hohmann and his colleagues aim to improve the algorithms that process acoustic signals in hearing aids and explore certain applications – for example in order to find out how loudspeaker signals like announcements at train stations can be made more intelligible in a noisy environment.
Another objective is to develop an intelligent earpiece that offers high sound quality while at the same time eliminating audio feedback and reducing background noise. In addition, the experts are studying how to play back complex acoustic scenes realistically via headphones. This would allow test persons to be fully immersed in a virtual reality that resembles a real environment both visually and acoustically – for instance a lively café or a noisy classroom. The technology could also be used to watch films with optimal acoustics at home. In the long term the CRC’s results are also planned to be used for other applications in the electronic entertainment industry, for instance language recognition or human-to-machine communication.
Actively promoting young researchers
The newly approved Collaborative Research Centre will also actively promote young researchers thanks to an integrated Research Training Group. As CRC coordinator Hohmann stresses: “We create the basis for helping patients by improving their rehabilitation with hearing aids, we train highly qualified scientists in hearing research, and we supplement the research of the Hearing4all Cluster of Excellence with important basic components.”