Virtual reality games helping UK’s deaf children to understand speech

<span>A boy plays the Bears virtual reality game, which is designed for children given twin cochlea implants because they were born with little or no hearing.</span><span>Photograph: NIHR</span>
A boy plays the Bears virtual reality game, which is designed for children given twin cochlea implants because they were born with little or no hearing.Photograph: NIHR

Scientists have recruited an unusual ally in their efforts to help children overcome profound deafness. They are using computer games to boost the children’s ability to localise sounds and understand speech.

The project is known as Bears – for Both Ears – and it is aimed at youngsters who have been given twin cochlea implants because they were born with little or no hearing.

“These are children who are profoundly deaf,” said audio engineer Lorenzo Picinali, a scientist on the project from Imperial College London. “They require major interventions to restore their hearing and we have found that computer games can make these much more effective.”

In one game, a player – wearing a virtual reality headset – operates a food stall and wins points for each order that is completed. The tempo hots up and the player receives increasingly elaborate requests from cartoon characters. These are fired at them at faster and faster from different directions. At the same time, background noises become louder and more confusing. “It’s very challenging but the game improves a child’s ability to localise sound and that, in turn, helps them understand speech,” added Picinali.

“Our research has shown that the better you are at localising a sound – in pinpointing the location of a noise – then you also get better understanding what someone is saying to you. Their speech becomes clearer in noisy situations.

“By using computer games we can help the person to boost their ability to localise sound and in the process to understand speech.”

All sorts of factors affect how a person picks up sounds, added Picinali, including the size of their head or the shape of their ears.

Other innovations developed at Imperial include a computer game in which children aim at targets that become fainter and fainter until they can only be pinpointed by acoustic cues. Others require players using differences in pitch to aim at sound-emitting targets.

“The crucial point is that children with implants were involved in designing the games,” said Picinali. “They have played a key role in the development of the project from the start.”

Unlike hearing aids, which merely amplify sounds and are therefore of little to use to profoundly deaf children, cochlea implants – which are fitted to the skull behind the ears – turn vibrations in the air into electrical signals that can be transmitted to the brain where they are experienced as sound.

However, these signals are often confusing and disorienting and can result in users receive highly distorted sounds. Localising sounds and listening to conversations in noisy places is still very difficult to comprehend using a cochlea implant, and some wearers find they simply cannot adjust to the sounds they produce.

“An implant is a lifeline for profoundly deaf children but they are not easy to get used to,” said Picinali. “We needed to find ways to make them easier to understand the signals being sent to their brains – and training with computer games should make a vital difference. What we are doing is helping them remap their hearing systems.”

There are about 6,500 children in the UK who are profoundly deaf and for whom a cochlea implant is the only hope for restoring their hearing. With the help of the comprehensive clinical trials unit at University College London, the project – which is led by Debi Vickers at Cambridge University and Dan Jiang at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in London, will recruit more than 300 youngsters with hearing difficulties and will be completed in about 18 months.

The end result, it is hoped, will not just aid children with cochlea implants, but could make major improvement to the hearing of all deaf children, about 50,000 children in the UK.

“All sorts of different causes can produce severe deafness in children, from genetics to accidents and infections,” added Katarina Poole, another member of the Imperial team. “This could make a major difference for the lives of thousands of children.”