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From sound to sight

(iStock photo composite)

Technology

From sound to sight

New sound recognition technologies can help the deaf

As Ashraf Hossain drives his blue SUV through the pedestrian-filled streets of New York City, he checks his rearview mirror every few seconds, scanning his surroundings. He tries to keep his eyes on the road, but he has to keep looking back: If he doesn’t, he might miss the sound of an approaching siren. Hossain, born deaf, has to rely on his eyesight to know when to pull over. 

When Hossain’s parents realized their young son was deaf, they moved to New York from Bangladesh for better deaf education. Today, with hearing aids, Hossain can hear some noises—though the noises are garbled. He can only distinguish what direction they come from, not what they are. Until recently, he relied on his eyes to interpret the distorted noises.

Now, when an emergency vehicle siren goes off, a notification pops up on Hossain’s phone, alerting him to the noise and identifying it. Hossain’s iPhone does this through a new sound recognition feature in the iOS 14 operating system. It’s an example of how new technologies can assist the deaf and hard of hearing.

Hossain is beta testing iOS 14, which Apple plans to release to the public this fall. The sound recognition feature (users can enable or disable it) continuously listens for certain sounds and notifies users with a pop-up alert when those sounds may be nearby. Hossain gets alerts for 14 sounds, including that of doorbells, smoke alarms, crying babies, barking dogs, and meowing cats. Already, the technology has helped him multiple times when he couldn’t tell he’d left a faucet running in his apartment.

“Before this kind of technology, I felt like I was missing a lot,” Hossain told me by American Sign Language in a phone interview facilitated by an interpreter. Hossain said the technology is showing him an array of background noises he never realized were there. 

Hearing basic noises such as doorbells or alarms is taken for granted by most people. For the deaf community, those sounds are generally inaccessible, noted Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. He said sound recognition technologies are pivotal to promoting autonomy for those with hearing challenges—around 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization.

Typically, deaf and hard of hearing people must purchase specialized doorbells or alarms for daily life. These expensive devices alert users with flashing lights or vibrations. 

However, that can change with technologies like Apple’s. And other companies offer similar features: Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant offers a home security system that sends a notification to the user’s phone when it detects smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, or glass breaking. Google’s Pixel smartphone monitors for sounds and motion to identify if the user is in a car crash.

While Hossain said the new iPhone feature isn’t 100 percent accurate (it occasionally gives him apparent false positive alerts), he already depends on it heavily. The portable nature of the iPhone allows him to take a normally expensive technology on the go—including through the streets of New York.

—Liz Rieth is a World Journalism Institute graduate