If Professor Chin-Tuan Tan had his druthers, hearing impaired listeners could enjoy MP3s and cell phone conversations more easily. Thanks to the Deafness Research Foundation (DRF), he very well might.
Professor Tan, who conducts research at the Department of Otolaryngology at the New York University School of Medicine and who has taught in NYU-Poly’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 2006, recently learned he would continue receiving funding from the DRF through June. The award boosts his research, which focuses on improving assistive listening devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, as well as enhancing other listening tools, such as phones and radios. He has a strong foundation in the field, having spent almost four years in the UK researching normal hearing in collaboration with cell-phone manufacturer Nokia, which is using the results of Professor Tan’s studies to better its products.
I’m impaired; you’re impaired
That background has gone a long way towards his efforts because, as Professor Tan observes, “normal hearing is just people with less hearing impairment. There’s some impairment in each of us.” For example, crowded, noisy subways — it’s hard for anyone to communicate in that environment, he says.
This time around, though, Professor Tan’s work concentrates on how hearing-impaired listeners process distorted speech and music. Describing the challenges of each, he says, “With speech, we know there’s a certain amount of so-called frequency or range because we’re restricted by articulators — our vocal cords, our physiological structure. For music, you’re knocking this, you’re playing this — the range is different.”
Those differences have Professor Tan developing a program to generate distorted sounds, but, more importantly, “you have to know how to test them on patients,” he says. “How do you design your experiments in such a way that you can be sure what [your subjects] are actually perceiving?”
Not just any engineer
The answer lies in psychophysics, a subdiscipline of psychology that correlates physical stimuli with their precepts. When paired with engineering, it’s a “very specialized field,” says Professor Tan, and one that’s contributing to the runaway growth of biomedical engineering. “You don’t just grab any engineer from the street,” he says. “The engineer cannot stand alone; the psychologist cannot stand alone. We should start training people that can really perform this act.”
NYU-Poly students have the opportunity to receive such training: this month Professor Tan will select an assistant to aid him with his research. He’s also looking for additional subjects to participate in his tests and will pay those who qualify. Students and potential testers can get in touch with him at Chin-Tuan.Tan@nyumc.org to learn more about his exciting findings and how to participate.