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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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