In a twist of fate, Sandy Mintz, an audiologist with medical device designer Advanced Bionics, lost her hearing about 10 years ago. Now, she is working with Samsung to help develop a wireless MP3 system so the deaf can enjoy music.
The idea is to link a Samsung MP3 player to the cochlear implant developed and sold by Advanced Bionics, which is a division of Boston Scientific. The cochlear implant consists of a processor worn outside the ear. The processor converts audio streams from the MP3 player (as well as ambient sounds and human speech) into digital data. The data then goes to another chip, implanted in a person's skull, which translates the data into electrical impulses.
The electrical impulses are then passed down an electrode, which stimulates a nerve that makes the brain create music. It stimulates the nerve in the same way the nerve is stimulated in people with hearing. The implant system effectively bypasses the damaged tissue. (The picture which looks like two batteries in a person's hand is the implant that goes in the patient's skull. The electrode is the thin strand.)
For conversations, the implant works great. "I couldn't use a voice phone for 10 years. Three days after I had it put in I talked to my dad on the phone," Mintz said at CES.
The trick now is to optimize the system for music. Getting the pitch and frequency of music is difficult. "You have to fine tune it," she said. Wireless is also a challenge. One idea is to link the external ear piece with the MP3 player through Bluetooth.
So far, the results are promising, and Samsung is seeking FDA approval.