OrCam develops device that amplifies hearing aids’ smarts

‘Best of Innovation’ award for accessibility at Las Vegas tech fair goes to OrCam Hear; tech helps users focus on person addressing them, countering dreaded ‘cocktail party effect’

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of a deaf boy learning sign language (Jovanmandic; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a deaf boy learning sign language (Jovanmandic; iStock by Getty Images)

OrCam Technologies, the maker of a device that helps blind people “see” using artificial intelligence technologies, is now turning its sights on people who have a hearing impairment.

Jerusalem-based OrCam — set up by the founders of Mobileye, a maker of self-driving technologies bought by Intel Corp. for a whopping $15.3 billion in 2017 — will preview its new device for hearing impairment, the wearable OrCam Hear, at the 2020 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), taking place January 7-10 in Las Vegas.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) on January 5 named OrCam Hear as a “Best of Innovation” for accessibility at the CES 2020 Innovation Awards, as part of the exhibition.

OrCam said that its OrCam Hear device is “the world’s first AI-driven, wearable assistive technology device for people with hearing impairment.”

An illustration of the OrCam Hear device (Courtesy)

It makes hearing aids smart, by identifying and isolating a speaker’s voice — from among multiple speakers — and then relaying the clear speech to users’ Bluetooth hearing aids, thus countering the so-called cocktail party effect.

The cocktail party effect, a problem being addressed by researchers, refers to the difficulty in focusing on a single conversation in a noisy environment. Conventional hearing aids are not able to separate the speech users want to hear from the background chatter.

The new wearable AI-based device is an add-on that integrates with existing hearing aids, OrCam said, with the aim of improving their performance.

The device is worn on clothing and comes with a tiny camera that is wirelessly connected to the hearing aid or earphones. The device discerns who is speaking to the user and reads that person’s lips, simultaneously separating the speaker’s voice from other sources of noise and other speakers. It switches between speakers when focus shifts to another.

The device is “discreet, easy to wear, and lightweight,” the firm said. It operates offline, without a WiFi connection, ensuring data privacy. Power consumption is low.

“We are truly honored that the CTA has distinguished OrCam Hear as one of the Best Innovations of CES 2020, in the accessibility category,” said Prof. Amnon Shashua, OrCam Technologies co-founder and co-CEO, in a statement. “With OrCam Hear, we pioneered the innovation as a versatile, effective solution for people who use hearing aids to seamlessly — and exclusively — hear the voice of their choosing in any type of environment, clearly and in real time.”

The firm has also developed an additional device, called OrCam Read, that uses AI-based technology to read out printed or digital texts in real time. The technology is aimed at people who have reading difficulties or those with dyslexia, the company said, or people who need to read large amounts of text.

The lightweight wireless device, the size of a pen, is able to read out the text to the users.

The OrCam Read device (Courtesy)

OrCam is a maker of wearable, AI-driven assistive technologies. Its OrCam MyEye 2 is a small, lightweight artificial vision device that discreetly reads printed and digital text aloud from any surface to users, enabling them to “see” what is in front of them.

The device is also able to do instant face recognition and identification of consumer products, colors and money notes. The MyEye 2 is activated by an intuitive pointing gesture or simply by following the wearer’s gaze, without the need of a smartphone or WiFi, the company says.

Earlier this year the MyEye 2 was among TIME magazine’s Best Inventions for 2019.

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