Good design functions best.
“I take pride in my circuit boards looking pretty,” said Michelle Temple, co-creator of low-cost hearing aid supplement W EAR, in her spacious Crown Heights studio that she shares with several other artists. “And the device works better because it’s pretty.”
Temple developed the W EAR device, which was on display at a recent wearable tech event, with her professor, Eric Rosenthal, from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University (ITP). She came up with the idea after developing a directional speaker during her graduate work at ITP, realizing she could use the same techniques to create directional mic that’s much, much smaller than the typical shotgun microphone. (Watch an early test from last year below.)
Temple is a Fort Greene artist, but she also works as an interpreter for people with hearing loss. She knows that the cost of hearing aids are prohibitively expensive for people without insurance. They can run in the thousands of dollars, she said.
Temple and Rosenthal believe they can mass produce the W EAR at cost in the low hundreds. Maybe even for less than $200, and give it a look similar to an iPod. A user could then wear the device around their neck, use regular headphones and draw no more attention by wearing it than someone would listening to music.
“The stigma of having a disability is non-existent with glasses, and I’d like to make something that accomplishes that for hearing,” she said.
Rosenthal and Temple have been working on the product for about two years now. She went through more prototypes than she can count — see some of them on her Vimeo. All the fabrication has been done in her studio. She would make a new design there and then take it to NYU and let Rosenthal test it out and give her feedback.
The biggest breakthrough came when she learned how to build the circuit boards using the surface mount technique rather than through-hole circuit boards. In other words, rather than her components having little legs that pass through the circuit board and get soldered on, they rest directly on the solder and are then baked onto the circuit board. It’s a very delicate procedure, primarily used now to make cell phones as thin and compact as they are.
Temple spent three to four months over the last year learning to do it by hand, with tweezers and a microscope. The intricacy is worth it, she said, because the system works better that way, making the device much smaller and much lighter. The photo below shows a prototype made with through-holes in the foreground and a more recent one in the background.
W EAR is pursuing crowdfunding options now. They have an application to conduct a Kickstarter in and are waiting to see whether or not it will be approved.
“We’re seeing if it’s a good fit,” she says. The trouble the team has now is that they don’t have the customer base to make thousands and thousands of the device with a large manufacturer, but they also can’t hand manufacture them in the quantity they could reasonably expect to serve.
Right now, they have about 20 handmade devices out in the hands of people with hearing loss and the feedback has been very positive. The device also has applications for field recording more precisely, in the form of a much lower profile directional microphone, for recording music or video.
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