Bone conduction technology–which sends sound directly to the inner ear by passing vibrations through the skull–is already used for hearing aids, and increasingly by normal-hearing people as well. Google Glass employs it, and Panasonic came out with some bone-conducting headphones earlier this year.
The thing is, all these applications really look like bone conduction technology: They are almost designed to advertise the fact. Nu Wave–a product developed by four students at Virginia Tech–is a bit more subtle. The hearing aid kit is housed inside a normal pair of glasses. “There are some other products on the market right now,” says Chelsey Pon, one of the students. “But they all attract that attention to the user that we’re trying to avoid. We wanted the person to blend in and feel as normal as possible.”
The students, who are in their junior year, came up with the idea after being approached by the Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, which develops products for people coping with disability. The center asked the team to design a product for an hypothetical individual: “Michael,” a recent victim of a car accident. Michael has permanent hearing loss, but wants to be able to use his phone. The glasses, which are linked to a mobile app, let him pick up calls easily and without interrupting everyone around him.
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At the moment, the product is just a prototype, and the team–which also includes students Lane Stith, Nellie Talbot, Peter Yoo–has yet to test it with any hearing impaired persons. They are now seeking funding to continue.
The idea recently took one of three runners-up spots in the U.S. James Dyson design awards, and now goes forward to the international stage. The U.S. winner is MyWater, a home water monitoring display system that we covered here. The other runners-ups are a surgery aid called Hap Tech, and Revolights, a bike lighting system. The Dyson Award announces an overall winner in November.