EarTrumpet on the iPhone
EarTrumpet, created by Drs. Hamid Djalilian and Brian J.F. Wong with medical student Allen Foulad, offers low-cost, stigma-free sound enhancement. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

UC Irvine doctors and a medical student are preparing to release the second version of EarTrumpet – the only iPhone hearing assistance application that combines adjustable volume controls with a hearing test that lets users tailor sound enhancement to their needs.

The idea grew from a lecture Dr. Hamid Djalilian gave about hearing aids last spring in Dr. Brian J.F. Wong’s biomedical engineering class. Noting the high price of hearing aids, Djalilian and Wong chatted afterward about the need for a low-cost alternative and how iPhones, iPads and iPod touches are stigma-free fashion accessories. Wong met with medical student Allen Foulad, who saw the potential in such a device and had the computer skills necessary to develop it.

They set out to create a tool with the functionality of a commercial hearing aid and the sophistication of a professional audiology test. Djalilian offered advice about features, and Foulad programmed the app and designed the user interface.

“Other ‘hearing aid’ applications simply make sound louder at all frequencies,” says Djalilian, director of otology, neurotology and skull base surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center. “We wanted it to work just like a hearing aid, where one can choose which pitches to amplify. People usually have high-pitch hearing loss and don’t need to amplify low-pitch sounds.”

Allowing the user to adjust pitch volumes, however, led to another challenge, he says: “Most people don’t know which pitches need amplification or by how much. So we added a hearing test that permits the user to identify and then fine-tune just the pitches where there is hearing loss.” Commercial hearing aids rely on audiologists to adjust the pitch amplification.

Other features include an intense volume boost, preset equalizer profiles that reduce background noise and enhance common frequencies, and adjustable volume for each ear.

The application may also prove useful to people who aren’t yet sure they need auditory assistance. “Some might realize they could benefit from a complete evaluation and, possibly, a more traditional hearing aid,” Djalilian says.

Though EarTrumpet is a good screening tool, he cautions that it should not replace professional testing: “An audiologist is trained to look for other problems you may have, so you don’t want to miss that.”

The original device garnered great reviews in Apple Computer’s App Store this summer, and an update will be released this month. The new version boasts an improved testing mode that analyzes whether a room is quiet enough for the exam to be effective, as well as advanced algorithms to filter out unwanted environmental noise.

The application now is capable of automatically adjusting sound according to hearing test outcomes. No other portable device does this. It can also email results. “This takes the guesswork out for the user,” Foulad says.

He, Wong and Djalilian are committed to continually refining EarTrumpet through clinical studies. “We want this tool to pave the way for the addition of numerous innovative features to help promote ear health and to diagnose and treat various ear conditions, such as tinnitus,” Djalilian says.

Wong believes the ability to put such applications on a handheld device could be invaluable in communities worldwide without ready access to hospitals or medical technology.

“This really is a game changer,” he says. “There’s an incredible amount of computing power in the palm of your hand, and now we’re developing sophisticated applications that can bring the benefits of modern medical technology to a much broader patient population.”