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Advancing Hearing Research with Virtual Reality Technology

It’s cool, modern and a lot of fun to instantly transpose your sight and mind to believing you are in another location. That’s the technology behind virtual reality. So what does visual stimulation have to do with hearing research?

The researchers at Boys Town National Research Hospital are leveraging virtual reality technology to create the illusion that research subjects are in specific environments, such as classrooms or cafeterias, when really they are in a controlled environment.

“Virtual reality allows my lab to match the visual space with the audio space for participants,” explains Dawna Lewis, Ph.D., Director of the Listening and Learning Laboratory at Boys Town National Research Hospital. “For example, desks, chairs, books on the bookshelves and blackboards across the room are all visible and match the environment we want to represent. The participants may also see reflections of light, like a sun ray coming from the window or a light dancing on the surface of a desk. It feels very realistic.”

Dr. Lewis is studying how to improve communication access for children with mild hearing loss, in complex listening environments. With a simulated classroom environment, including audio-visual cues and background noise, she is able to conduct a controlled experiment and track the difficulties that children with hearing loss are having with hearing and understanding speech at school and in other noisy environments.

This research is important because about five percent or 3 million school-age children in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. Previous research shows that children with hearing loss often do not perform as well as their normal hearing peers in academic settings.

In previous studies, a classroom was simulated by surrounding participants with five different television screens and having the subjects turn to each screen when an auditory-visual cue was given.

“This is a big step from our previous study,” said Timothy Vallier, M.M., research systems analyst and virtual reality software developer. “By taking away the distraction of the room looking different from how it sounds, we may see a higher performance from the subjects in this virtual environment.”

The virtual reality research will help identify why children with mild hearing loss perform the way they do in noisy environments and hopefully lead to further understanding of the accommodations that will benefit learning for these children across their educational lifespan.

“Virtual reality opens current and future experimental possibilities and has the potential to influence audiological and educational strategies,” explains Dr. Lewis. “We hope we can use the technology to help children and families within our community as well as worldwide.”

Utilizing this kind of technology has fellow Boys Town scientists excited for what the future holds – new research, new findings and more ways to help children, families and communities.