CSL students gain real research experience in class
In Technology Entrepreneurship (TE) 401: Develop Breakthrough Projects, students work in teams to translate academic research into commercially viable technology. Under the tutelage of CSL Professor Andrew Singer and graduate student Ryan M. Corey, they are working to envision new listening technology to benefit the hearing impaired.
TE 401, a group independent study course, works much like a start-up company, with students addressing different technological and business challenges, from programming and circuit prototyping, to design and marketing. Over the past two years, sixteen undergraduate and master’s students have worked in Singer’s Augmented Listening Laboratory. They come from a variety of disciplines, including electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and even industrial design.
Students assist Singer and Corey with their research on signal processing algorithms that combine audio signals from hundreds of microphones to determine which sounds come from which directions and isolate signals from noise. They aim to apply their technology to listening devices such as hearing aids, smart headphones, and augmented reality headsets. A potential application for their research would be a hearing device that could enhance one speaker’s voice at a crowded party.
“I started working on this problem because I wanted to make hearing aids work better in loud noise, where they don’t work well today,” said Corey, a PhD candidate in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and a hearing aid user himself. “As we started the project, there were several new consumer-targeted devices coming out that do basically the same thing, modifying the sound around you as you hear it. The students are helping us explore these new markets that we might not have thought about otherwise.”
One of the challenges of this research is that the devices being studied — wearable audio devices with dozens of microphones —don’t yet exist. Most students focus on designing, building, and testing prototypes of these devices. So far, they’ve attached microphones to belts, headphones, and a construction helmet, among other things.
“The course forced me to become more aware of what’s happening in the audio signal processing world and more creative to circumvent problems that I and others encounter daily,” said Naoki Tsuda, a recent graduate of the aerospace engineering program and a four-semester veteran of the lab. “TE 401 is a unique course where students are able to work on complex problems rather than just fixing code.”
Some students help Corey and Singer, the Fox Family Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, with basic research. Tsuda was part of the team that recently debuted a unique wearable microphone dataset at the International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing (ICASSP).
The students have helped to share their inventions and discoveries with the public at the last two Engineering Open House events, even receiving the Best Kickoff award for their 2018 exhibit which allowed visitors to listen through a prototype listening device and focus on sounds from across a noisy room.
“The technology we are developing amazed people from all different age groups,” said JJ Martinez-Villalba, a recent graduate from computer engineering who led the team’s hardware design effort for the past four semesters. “Seeing their faces light up when using our prototypes was priceless.”
In addition to research experience, Corey says the students gain teamwork and technical skills that have helped recent graduates to find good job placements and gain admission to graduate school.
“TE 401 has equipped me with the tools to not only enhance my skills as an engineer but has allowed me to unlock creativity to solve unique challenges and gain ingenuity,” said Bryce Tharp, a junior computer engineering student who joined the lab last year and has taken a leadership role. “Helping invent devices that help people have a better quality of life is an immeasurably rewarding experience.”
Singer’s section of TE 401, titled “Innovation in Augmented Listening Technology,” will be offered again in the fall of 2019. For more information about the students’ specific projects, the class, or the Augmented Listening Lab, visit their blog.