Prof. Dr. Dr. Birger Kollmeier, Prof. Dr. Volker Hohmann (both of the University of Oldenburg, "Hearing4all" Cluster of Excellence) and Dr. Torsten Niederdränk (Siemens AG) have – as announced this afternoon by the Federal President – been nominated for the renowned 2012 German Future Prize by the jury as one of four teams. The prize honours the team's outstanding research in the field of hearing aids.
The renowned science award is bestowed by the Federal President for particularly successful work in technology and innovation, which achieves outstanding results in science and leads to products that shape the future. Proposed by the German Research Foundation, the team lead by Prof. Dr. Dr. Kollmeier of the University of Oldenburg was nominated by a high-ranking panel of judges for the final round, the "Best of the Best." Professor Kollmeier also heads up the HörTech Competence Centre, the Fraunhofer Project Group for Hearing, Speech and Audio Technology, and is one of the leading minds at the "Auditory Valley" research and development network.
The specific development honoured by this nomination is obvious and evident, and yet extremely complex in its execution: the interaction of both ears in hearing also has to be taken into account in hearing aids. As with sight, it is the interaction between the left and the right ear, which creates spatial perception. This enables people to understand a conversation in a lively environment, as noises and echoes are suppressed, allowing the listener to give their full attention to the person talking.
Until the 90s, hearing aids were primarily aimed at supplying each ear individually. With its developments, the research team lead by Professor Kollmeier gave rise to a significant re-think in the entire industry. "First we needed to understand the complex processes of natural hearing and then based on that information develop initial algorithms for hearing aids that would perform these processes for people with hearing impairments," describes Professor Kollmeier.
Taking a bulky laboratory prototype and making it into a high-tech hearing aid posed more challenges: "What person with a hearing aid would accept a wire running from their right ear to their left one? We needed to develop a fast, wireless datalink with a high bit rate and low energy consumption," explains engineer Dr. Torsten Niederdränk (Siemens AG), describing how development proceeded.
The work of the research team produced a number of patents. Siemens Hearing Instruments introduced the first binaural devices to the market as early as 2004.
"We are driven by the fact that our invention helps so many people today," comments Prof. Dr. Volker Hohmann of the University of Oldenburg and expert on model-based signal processing in hearing aids describes the motivation behind their innovation. Hearing impairment is widespread and in the European Union approximately 56 million adults aged 18 to 80 suffer from impaired hearing requiring treatment. That means one in six adults is affected, half of them of working age.
The fact that the invention of "binaural hearing aids" is included in nearly all modern devices can be attributed primarily to the good cooperation between science and industry. It was initially supported by a Federal Ministry of Science and Research funding scheme and later successfully continued within the framework of the Auditory Valley network.
Subsidised by the Federal ministry of Science and Research, the "Hearing4all" Cluster of Excellence is where scientists research and develop hearing technology in a network of university and non-university partners for the benefit of the hard-of-hearing. The Auditory Valley brings leading research institutes in Lower Saxony together with companies in the audiology sector. People with impaired hearing will not be the only people to benefit from the technology; so too will people with normal hearing when they are in acoustically challenging environments.
Things will be tense for the nominated team right up to the last minute: the winner of the 2012 German Future Prize will remain a secret until Federal President Gauck announces it at the award ceremony. ZDF will be broadcasting the gala event at 10:15 p.m. on 28th November.