OrCam Hear hands-on: A surprisingly effective voice isolation platform for people with hearing loss

Imagine being at a crowded convention or noisy bar and trying to have a conversation with someone across from you. It’s tough enough for people with hearing to focus on what the person is saying, not to mention those with hearing loss. Assistive technology company OrCam has rolled into CES 2024 with a host of new products including a set of devices and an iPhone app designed to help those with hearing loss deal with auditory overload. The platform is called OrCam Hear and after a quick hands-on at the show in Las Vegas, I’m pleasantly surprised.

OrCam Hear consists of a pair of earbuds and a dongle that plugs into any phone, and you’ll use the app to control who you want to listen to. The system listens to voices for a few seconds (via the dongle) and uses AI to create speaker profiles for each person that then allows you to “selectively isolate specific voices even in noisy environments.” This targets the issue sometimes known as the “cocktail party problem” that’s a challenge for hearing aids.

During a demo, my editor Terrence O’Brien and I spoke to two people whose voice profiles were already set up in the app. We stood around a table with Terrence on my right and the two company spokespeople across us about five feet away. I put the earbuds in (after they were sanitized), and the noise around me immediately sounded a little less loud and a lot more muffled. 

Photo by Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

I looked at everyone around me and though I could see their lips moving, I couldn’t hear anyone speaking. After OrCam’s reps used the app to drag a floating circle into the ring surrounding me, I started to hear the person diagonally across me talk. And though the executive next to him was also moving his mouth, I could still only hear the voice of the person selected. Only after we moved the other speaker’s icon into the ring did I start to hear them.

What impressed me more, though, was how the system handled relatively new participants like Terrence. He didn’t have a profile set up in the app, and I initially couldn’t hear him at all. A few seconds into the demo, though, a new circle appeared with a gray icon indicating a new “Anonymous” person had been recognized. When we dragged that into the ring, I was suddenly able to hear Terrence. This was all the more impressive because Terrence was wearing a fairly thick mask, which would have made him hard to understand any way. Yet, I was able to clearly make out what he was saying.

The OrCam Hear isn’t perfect, of course. I was still able to hear the speakers as they talked, and the audio playing through the earbuds was slightly delayed, so there was a small echo. But people who have hearing loss, whom this product is designed for, aren’t likely to experience that. There was also some audio distortion when the selected speakers were talking, but not so much that it impeded my comprehension.

OrCam said that the Hear platform is “currently in a technology preview phase and is expected to be shipped later in the year.” Hopefully, that gives the company time to iron out quirks and make the app available on both iOS and Android, so that the assistive tech can be truly inclusive and accessible to more people.

We’re reporting live from CES 2024 in Las Vegas from January 6-12. Keep up with all the latest news from the show here.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/orcam-hear-hands-on-a-surprisingly-effective-voice-isolation-platform-for-those-with-hearing-loss-230243953.html?src=rss 

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