Cs01.jpg (14532 bytes)Phonic Ear’s headquarters in the Sonoma County wine country, north of San Francisco.

Phonic Ear, a Petaluma, Calif-based developer and manufacturer of assistive listening devices using wireless technologies, actually began with a focus on products that offered solutions to speech and language problems.

The company was founded in 1963 as HC Electronics by husband and wife Ruth and Scott Holden. Ruth Holden had been working as a speech-language pathologist in a school setting, and her husband was an engineer.

The Holdens eventually sold Phonic Ear in the early 1970s, but the couple initially started the company to help students overcome speech impediments.

Product Development
One of the first products the company developed was the Phonic Mirror, an automatic speech playback tape recorder for speech clinicians. The device allowed students who were not hearing impaired to hear themselves speak, and thereby improve and overcome their speech impediments.

On the heels of the Phonic Mirror’s success, the company soon came out with another product, the Phonic Ear, specifically for students with hearing impairment. The product became so popular that the company soon adopted the name Phonic Ear for itself.

“Very rapidly, our core mission and core interest was in helping children with hearing impairment perform better in classrooms, and that really continues to this day” says John Merline, Phonic Ear’s marketing director. “We’ve expanded into other areas, but they all have to do with helping people hear in difficult listening environments.”

Phonic Ear also has offices in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and Copenhagen, Denmark. There are about 110 employees in the entire company, most of them based in the California office.

Each of the facilities has technical and customer service departments, as well as a shipping department. The offices in Canada and Denmark also have sales and marketing departments.

The California office holds the company’s primary marketing department, as well as its research and development department, although the company does have a collaborative working relationship with the research and development staff of the international hearing health care company William Demant Holding Group, Hellerup, Denmark.

Today, Phonic Ear is active in wireless technologies used in products for classrooms, homes, and public facilities.

Its classroom products are known as active learning devices and are for students with normal hearing and those with hearing impairment.

“The concept is pretty simple, although it’s not something that necessarily strikes adults as being obvious,” Merline says. “In a classroom, children who are closer to the teacher can hear the teacher better, and because they can hear the teacher better, they are more engaged, they attend better, their performance improves, their test scores improve, their behavior improves. So what we’re doing with our active learning systems is trying to essentially give every student a front row seat.”

Wireless Technology
That is accomplished through the use of wireless technology. The teacher wears a wireless microphone that transmits his or her voice to a receiver base station located somewhere in the classroom that is connected to two to four speakers placed around the room. The speakers equalize the sound throughout the listening area.

“The benefits are that student attention improves, their comprehension improves, behavior improves. Teacher fatigue decreases because the teacher doesn’t have to raise his or her voice to reach the students in the back of the room. They can speak in a normal voice, and still be understood by everybody,” Merline says. “One of the major impacts of these when we install them is that teachers say they have so much more energy at the end of the day because they don’t have to shout.”

Phonic Ear does have some techniques that it uses in products to specifically improve intelligibility for hearing-impaired children. One of those products is the OptiVoice, a switch on a line of products that allows a teacher to optimize the sound coming through the speakers for critical speech frequencies, which are mostly the higher frequency sounds. “That can greatly improve intelligibility for students if there is a lot of background noise, or for critical tasks, such as listening to directions or taking tests, or, obviously, if they have a hearing impairment,” Merline says. “What we find is that a lot of students who are wearing a hearing aid tend to prefer the medium and high settings on the OptiVoice.”

The newest product in Phonic Ear’s active learning systems is the Front Row Pro, which is infrared-based, has a lightweight microphone, has a simple interface, and can be fully integrated with other educational technology used in a classroom, including computers, DVD players, VCRs, and data projectors.

Phonic Ear’s active learning systems recently received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for use with children with normal hearing and hearing impairment.

European Connection
Phonic Ear has a line of home products that are primarily marketed in Europe, although the company does offer a select few in the United States, mostly through various distributors.

“European countries tend to have more generous health care systems than the United States does, so services for people with a hearing loss are much more generous, in terms of the kinds of products and services that they can get. The cost to the user is very low or, in some cases, there is no cost,” Merline says. “In the United States, it’s a different story; people, for the most part, need to pay out of their own pocket. Offering the full suite of products that we offer in Europe has not appeared to be feasible in the US health care model.”

The solutions offered in the United States tend to focus on telephone communication, and listening to the television.

“We very much want to bring more of these home products to the United States, and are working on being able to do so,” Merline says. “We’ll closely monitor the feedback from consumers in the market and our dispensing audiologists to know when the right time is to introduce further products. It seems to be primarily a factor of the health care reimbursement systems, but it may be a cultural difference as well.”

The home products sold in Europe are designed to help individuals be aware of other devices in their home environment, such as doorbells, telephones, fire alarms, alarm clocks, televisions, and stereos. The full line, which is called Puzzle, uses interchangeable transmitters and receivers that the customer can choose, depending on their particular needs.

“For example, you might place a transmitter next to the doorbell. When it hears the doorbell ringing, it will send a wireless signal to any one of a number of receivers that you may have chosen. One could be a little pocket vibrator that you carry with you, and it will vibrate in a certain pattern to let you know that it’s the doorbell ringing, and not the telephone going off. You could also have a loudspeaker system that simply amplifies the signal, so that it creates a loud pattern, letting you know that the doorbell is ringing. You could also have a flashing, visual indicator that lets you know that the doorbell is ringing,” Merlin says. “There are a number of ways to communicate information to the user, depending on their particular preferences and needs. That’s the beauty of it—it’s so flexible.”

Public Accessibility
Phonic Ear’s public accessibility products allow access to all public venues for people with hearing impairment. “We know that a lot of people, especially older people who have a hearing loss, will tend to shrink away from social situations because they can’t hear. They’ll stop going to the cinema or to their house of worship or to parties because it becomes so frustrating and embarrassing not to be able to hear. Even if you have a hearing aid, as good as they are these days, it can’t always compensate for the effects of distance, background noise, and reverberation in public facilities, many of which are designed to house a lot of people and, therefore, have high ceilings, glass, and hard surfaces that create a lot of echo in the room,” Merline says. “What we want to do with these public access systems is welcome people back into public spaces, and a great way to do that is with a wireless system.”

These types of products can be available as receivers in such facilities as movie theaters and sporting venues.

“The sound is being piped directly to your ears, so you’re bypassing the effects of distance, reverberation, and whoever is next to you talking, so it makes it a much more enjoyable experience,” Merline says. “We find that businesses that view this as a customer service, and as a way to welcome people into their facility, do very well and reap the rewards of the appreciation that the community has for these kinds of systems.

“Part of it is that these venues recognize it as a customer service issue; part of it is also the fact that it is required by law,” Merlin says. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that places of public accommodation must have at least 4% of their seating accessible to people with hearing impairment.

Phonic Ear conducts extensive customer research to identify the needs for new products in the marketplace. “A number of ideas coalesce out of a number of different suggestions,” Merline says.

An Extensive Customer Base
The company’s customer base includes end users; audiologists, particularly those in education; as well as park services and museums that use its tour systems; amphitheaters, cinemas, and places of worship that use its public access systems; and schools that use its active learning systems.

“Depending on the scope of the project, the research and development may include teams from William Demant, as well,” Merline says. “Because so many of our products are so close to the hearing aid, it makes a lot of sense for the development teams that are designing hearing aids to be very much involved in the development of the product.”

In the near future, Phonic Ear will release a cochlear implant adapter for Lexis™, an ear-level FM wireless communication system designed with children’s language development in mind.

The company plans to continue its research into and development of more ways to solve everyday speech intelligibility problems for individuals with normal hearing and those with hearing impairment, including further integration of wireless assistive systems with the technologies people are already using in their daily lives, such as cell phones and handheld computer products.

“The hope is that somebody who recognizes that they have a hearing impairment can in their home, in their place of work, in school, in the public environment, find that whatever barriers may have been created by their hearing loss are coming down,” Merline says, “and that the world is just as accessible and transparent to them as to the rest of their fellow citizens. We’re very conscious of that.”

Danielle Cohen is associate editor of Hearing Products Report.