Voices in Your Head: How Google Glass Lets a Half-Deaf Person Hear

The device's bone-conduction audio brings new sounds to a hearing impaired person.

The technologists, early adopters, and so-called “explorers” who got their hands on the first pairs of Google Glass have been describing the moment they slide on the odd-looking headset for the first time with a kind of evangelical fervor.

Few have conveyed the power of the device, though, with the kind of personal insight offered by David Trahan, a senior strategist for global digital marketing and technology agency MRY.

Trahan—whose job involves using customer insights to create digital experiences for clients—is deaf in his right ear. Little did he know when he was invited to be a Google Glass Explorer that the device would let him hear in a way he hadn't before.

Trahan recently trekked over to Google’s office in Chelsea Market for a Glass demonstration. While there, a Google employee made a passing reference to how the bone conduction audio technology that’s part of Glass makes it possible for someone who’s deaf to hear sounds emitted by the device.

Trahan said he was shocked and nearly moved to tears.

“The first thing I did was Google something,” Trahan told Fast Company. “I used the voice command and said, ‘OK Glass, Google...’ and then had to immediately think of something to look up. I have this weird love for banana-flavored things, so 'banana' was the first thing that came to mind. ‘OK Glass, Google banana.’

“For the whole night, I just Googled stuff and called people and just listened to the sounds.” It's worth noting that the Glass didn't make Trahan hear all sounds, only those broadcast (video, audio) by the device itself.

These are the kinds of serendipitous moments Google was hoping users would encounter as more people got added to the Explorer program.

“The goal of the Explorer program is to get Glass into the hands of all sorts of people, to hear their feedback, research and address any concerns, and see the inspirational ways people are using the technology,” Anna Richardson White, a Google spokesperson, said.

How did the device make that possible? According to the Hearing Loss Education Center, bone conduction involves sound traveling straight into the inner ear through the skull. Rather than try and reach the inner ear by going through the damaged part, systems like the one in Glass send it through the bone. Trahan says hearing with Glass is different than hearing out of your ear normally. He wasn’t sure if it sounded different than his normal ear because he’s not used to hearing or because it’s a different sound. It feels like it’s coming from inside your head, he explained.

Even though he chooses to look on the bright side, Trahan says that his half-deafness creates difficulty for him: He has trouble telling which direction sound is coming from, and if he’s in a noisy place, he pretty much misses out on everything since all the sound traveling through one ear means he can’t filter the noise. “I don’t not hear it," he explained. "I just hear it all together. . . . And it’s not just hearing that’s affected. It’s how I experience the world."

“Unless you’re half deaf, it might be hard to understand what that means for how one interacts with the world. To me, I perceive what’s happening on my right as less relevant to what’s happening on my left. There are more knickknacks on the left side of my desk than on the right. I choose where to sit at brunch, so that the most important people are closest to my ‘good ear.’ I choose which side of the street to walk on based on if I want to pay more attention to the buildings by having them on my left or the open road by having it on my left. It’s the way life has always been. My right ear is just for decoration.”

Not anymore.

“Now, when I take it off, I miss it,” he said of Glass. “Life feels a little lonelier.”

[Photo by Samantha Wilco]

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10 Comments

  • Guest1212

    There are hearing aids available that can help this condition and allow you to hear more than just audio streaming to the device.  Now, with wireless BiCROS hearing aids or Bone Conduction hearing aids, there are solutions to this problem. Google Glass is providing an interesting option, but it's limiting.

  • Carscott1

    Very cool outcome, David! There are many types and degrees of hearing loss so I caution everyone with a hearing loss to not assume they will have David's experience. Generally speaking if you have "nerve" loss in both ears the bone conduction technology, which has been around for 90 years, will offer little improvement. People with conductive loss from ear drum or middle ear problems will experience more benefit - but this accounts for only 15% of people with hearing loss. Those with one-sided hearing loss will also notice benefit like David. It's great that Google glass included this long-known technology but don't assume that they've innovated a vast solution for hearing loss.

  • Deb

    Um, there have been "eye glass" hearing aids for years and well as bone conduction hearing aids that are much less obtrusive...

  • Jill Shapiro Petersen

    I am deaf in my right ear and wear a hearing aid in my left. I wonder which type of deafness this is for mine is nerve deafness.

  • Caitlin H.

    I wasn't aware the Google Glass technology could do something like this.. very interesting. I'm excited to see how this technology will shape the future!

  • David Neer

    I have been deaf in my left ear since I was 7. Looking forward to "hearing" again. Also funny that the one ear terminology is the same as mine.

  • Lisa

    Wow I have been going deaf for about 10 years. I am supposed to wear 2 hearing aides but one broke so I only wear 1 on my right side so I can relate. This sounds amazing I would really like to try it.

  • Aaron Worthington Trahan

    I love this article! I'll never forget when David called me (his twin brother) using Glass and told me that he could hear, I've been telling friends about it every since.