Binaural hearing aids – stereo hearing for everyone

(f.l.t.r.) Dr.-Ing. Torsten Niederdränk, Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Dr. med. Birger Kollmeier, Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Volker Hohmann

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Dr. med. Birger Kollmeier (Spokesperson)
Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Volker Hohmann
Dr.-Ing. Torsten Niederdränk*

Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg
*Siemens AG , München

In Germany, one in six people have some form of a hearing loss, including many young people. Hearing aids can help, but in acoustically “difficult” situations, they frequently fail. How can hearing impairments best be compensated for?

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Dr. med. Birger Kollmeier, Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Volker Hohmann and Dr.-Ing. Torsten Niederdränk have solved the problem: they created the conditions for systems that help restore almost normal hearing to the hearing impaired. The basis is a digital process that combines hearing devices worn on both ears to create a binaural hearing system. Birger Kollmeier heads the Medical Physics department at the University of Oldenburg and is head of HörTech, a center of excellence for hearing aid system technology, the Hearing Center Oldenburg as well as Fraunhofer project group for hearing, speech and audio technology. Volker Hohmann is the deputy head of the Medical Physics department at the University of Oldenburg and heads the Research & Development division of HörTech. Torsten Niederdränk is Vice President “Corporate Standards & Guidance” at Siemens AG in Munich and was previously Development and Production manager at Siemens Audiological Systems.

Hearing problems are quite common – especially in the 60+ generation in which one in two people has sustained some sort of hearing loss. Yet the phenomenon is far from being a sign of old age: teenagers and children often have restricted hearing. Almost one in one hundred newborns already have hearing problems and need a hearing aid as early as possible to learn to speak normally and communicate with their environments. The hearing devices used to date improve the situation, but the technology has its limits: in rooms that produce an echo, when several people are talking at the same time, or loud background noise, people with hearing problems often only hear a confusion of voices and noises that is incomprehensible.

This is because most hearing aids are designed to support only one ear. Binaural hearing systems by comparison provide much better hearing quality. The systems use two hearing devices, one on the left and one on the right ear to pick up the spatial properties of an acoustic field and process them optimally for the hearing impaired individual. Birger Kollmeier, Volker Hohmann, and Torsten Niederdränk have been involved in research and development for these hearing systems for many years. The nominated scientists have created, among other things, a process to exchange data continuously by radio between the two hearing aids. They also developed a diagnostic method capable of determining hearing impairments – and then produces algorithms to compensate specifically for the individual hearing impairment.

Siemens Audiological Systems introduced the first binaural hearing aids to the market in 2004; additional products followed. Most of them use the technology developed in the laboratory of the experts in Oldenburg. Several years from now, four out of five hearing devices will presumably use binaural technology. This opens up an enormous market: worldwide almost eight million hearing aids are sold every year with sales totaling almost 3 billion Euros and with an annual growth rate of 20 percent. The six largest manufacturers worldwide all work closely with the researchers from Oldenburg.

The right to nominate outstanding achievements for the Deutscher Zukunftspreis is incumbent upon leading German institutions in science and industry as well as foundations

The project “Binaural hearing aids – stereo hearing for everyone was nominated by DFG – The German Research Foundation.