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Hearing aids headed for new vibe with Ontenna

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Staff Writer

As a student, Tatsuya Honda was just being nice when he helped a deaf man who had gotten lost at a festival at Future University Hakodate in Hokkaido in 2009.

But he never imagined that the encounter would grow into two things — a friendship and inspiration to develop a wearable sound sensor to help people with hearing disabilities.

As the two became friends, Honda got more interested in communicating with the hearing-impaired, prompting him to learn sign language and volunteer as a translator.

So it was only natural for Honda, who was studying design and technology, to create the Ontenna — a device worn on one’s hair that vibrates and flashes when it senses sound — for his graduation project.

The Ontenna project is now under development at IT giant Fujitsu Ltd., where Honda heads a team tasked with commercializing the device.

“The concept of the Ontenna is that a person’s hair senses sound like cat whiskers sense the flow of air,” said Honda, 26. “The reason why it’s attached to the hair is because it is very sensitive, making it easy for wearers to feel the vibration.”

Ontenna, a pun made from combining on (sound) with antenna, picks up sounds between 30 and 90 decibels. The device uses 256 levels of vibration intensity to convey the volume.

Honda initially thought of creating a device that attaches to the wrist, but the hearing-impaired rejected the idea during testing, saying it bothered them when they were using sign language. They also said it was awkward to wear the gadget directly on the skin, and that the vibrating was hard to detect when worn on clothing.

The Ontenna can make useful differences in the lives of the hearing-impaired, Honda said.

When using a vacuum cleaner, for example, they may not notice when the power cord becomes accidentally unplugged. But since Ontenna would stop vibrating when the vacuum cleaner quit, they would notice immediately.

It can also help one notice when the doorbell is ringing, Honda said, simply by remembering its vibration pattern.

In one astonishing case, a deaf person wearing an Ontenna was able to identify the buzzing rhythm of a cicada. The person had read in a book about the cicadas’ buzzing chirp, but didn’t actually comprehend it until then.

Honda also designed the Ontenna to look stylish, unlike conventional hearing aids.

The design of the oval white device, about 5 to 6 cm long, appears to stress its roundness. When it senses sound, an LED light flashes.

“Products to support people with disabilities often have designs that seem to (highlight) the disabilities,” Honda said, pointing to things like standard hearing aids and crutches.

Back in college, his professor was researching ways to resolve social issues with technology and design, a concept Honda was also interested in. As he got to know more about the hearing-impaired and the inconveniences they faced, Honda felt a sense of mission.

“I was friends with deaf people, so I wanted to make something with them,” he said.

Honda received a government subsidy for the Ontenna project when he was in graduate school. After that, the media started reporting on the device, sparking inquiries from around the world about when it would be commercially available.

Not wanting to see it end as a mere college project, Honda last year gave a presentation on the Ontenna to Fujitsu. He received an offer he couldn’t refuse: Let us hire you on the spot and we’ll let you continue the project.

The Ontenna is still in development.

“I’ve been personally saying that I want to make it available next year,” Honda said, adding that he wants to it to go global.

The prototype is currently being used on a trial basis at schools for the hearing-impaired and similar organizations to collect more feedback, Honda said.

For instance, the device can be bothersome when worn outdoors, where noise is abundant. Honda’s team is considering adding different modes so its sensitivity can be adjusted depending on location.

At times, negative feedback discourages him.

“I was shocked when they told me, ‘Don’t meddle in our affairs. We’ve been living in a world without sound, so we don’t want it.’ They might have felt that their lives were denied,” Honda said, recalling conversations he has had with elderly deaf people.

But young people are especially interested in the Ontenna, he said.

On Dec. 2, several deaf and hearing-impaired people tried out the Ontenna at a facility in Sakai in Osaka.

Kiyomi Kaji, a member of the facility’s staff, said many found it useful but some found it a bit gaudy.

“There are already devices that flash or vibrate when they sense sound, but they are mostly designed to be set up at home,” she said. “So some liked it, as they could casually bring a device outside that helps them notice sound.”

Yet some said they felt uncomfortable wearing a white flashing device on their head.

Despite the mix of opinions, having a new device like the Ontenna out there is good because it gives people more choice, Kaji said, noting that the needs of the hearing-impaired differ according to each individual.

As for Ontenna’s business model, Honda said he hopes to take an open-source approach to developing both the hardware and the software so customers will be able to modify its functions and design by themselves.

This is because Honda believes the Ontenna’s use will not be limited to supporting the hearing-impaired.

“I want to turn it into a platform so that many people in society can access and improve it,” he said.

This monthly feature, appearing on the second Monday or the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, looks at technologies still under development or new to the market.