My name is Christopher Barry, I’m the founder of Symbiaudix, and the creator of a new kind of human/machine audio interface called Bion.
This is my story.
It all begins in 1983 when, at the ripe old age of 22, I failed my annual hearing exam. I was an F-16 Crew Chief in the US Air Force at the time, and was stationed at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
I was pulled off the flightline because USAF thought jet noise had damaged my hearing. Admittedly, I didn’t always wear my hearing protection. They were hot and uncomfortable, and for me at least, jet noise never seemed all that loud.
I was sent to Seoul to a larger military hospital for more tests. There, I was diagnosed with a fixated stapes, which meant one of the three little bones in each of my middle ears was becoming welded, or calcified to my inner eardrum. This was seriously impeding the movement of the bones, and thus the transmission of sound. It was genetic, and it would only get worse.
This essentially ended my USAF career. I never got to work on the flightline again, however I did get to design and build out the tool crib including all the shelves, cabinets, steel countertops, etc up at the alert pad EOR before my tour ended, which was a lot of fun. I built them to last forever, and I’d love to know if any of that is still there and being used today. USAF never throws anything out – they just repaint it… If you’re reading this, and you’re there, look for my signature under the tool checkout counter, and “Go Wolfpack!” 🙂
Ironically, my condition actually saved my auditory nerve from damage from jet noise. My nerve itself is fine. Given enough amplification, I could hear great. However, the stigma of wearing hearing aids as a young man at the time made me wait a while to seek a remedy. I was in denial.
When me saying ‘Huh?’ all the time annoyed everyone around me enough, they insisted I do something about it. First, I went to the VA in Los Angeles where the Doctors tried to sell me a new set of stainless steel and teflon prosthetic bones for my middle ears. There was ‘only’ a 15% failure rate they said, and these prosthetics possibly would have me hearing normally again in no time. I asked about possible side-effects, and they could be very serious.
- If any liquid were to leak from my Cochlea during the procedure, I would have permanent vertigo.
- There is a major facial nerve that runs right through where they’d need to cut, so if they accidentally damaged this nerve, my face would be permanently paralyzed, like someone who’d had a stroke.
None of which had ever happened to anyone this Doctor had worked on, he assured me.
I mulled it over for a week or so. I liked and believed the Doctor, and I didn’t want hearing aids, so I decided to give it a shot on just my right ear first. When I awoke from the operation, I discovered the Doctor had aborted the procedure, stating the stapes fixation was such that, and because of my young age, he was uncomfortable risking damaging my inner eardrum. Being dizzy continuously for another 50 years or so would be pretty difficult to live with.
My only remaining option was hearing aids, and I resisted for almost another year. I could now barely hear anything around me. It was beyond being annoying, it was becoming dangerous and scary. I was withdrawing from people, avoiding communicating, hearing things wrong, and misunderstanding people all the time. This had become my reality, but it definitely wasn’t this funny, it was seriously wrecking my life. I had to get hearing aids.
I was going to a local community college for Art at the time, while working graveyard at a parking garage. The cheapest pair of hearing aids that would work for me at that time cost about $2,400 USD, and there was no way I could afford them. I had to apply to a special program due to my low income to get them. Luckily I was accepted into the program and got them.
WOW! I could hear again! But it sounded like I was living inside a Walkman, all tinny and compressed. If I passed too close to a wall or especially a plate glass window, or held a phone to my ear they would let out an obnoxious squealing sound like a car burning rubber. This was reflective sound feedback, it happened all the time, and it was absolutely horrible.
They also churned through tiny coin-cell batteries. The batteries were not rechargeable, lasted maybe 4 or 5 days, and were really expensive. Just buying batteries back then was tough.
One morning, I awoke and looked over at the nightstand, (ok, it was actually a milk crate with a nice piece of fabric over it) next to our bed (alright, it was really a frameless futon laying right on the floor), I saw only ONE hearing aid! I looked all around the bed, in my pants pockets, on the dresser, under the pillow, under the laundry. It was gone! That Cat! The cat loved to bat stuff around like a little four-legged Pele. She no doubt had whacked it around and it was under something, somewhere. I went to the kitchen, got some coffee, pulled out the kitchen chair and sat into it to hear CRUNCH under the leg of the chair! I wore a single hearing aid for the next two years.
Fast forward through many years, places, jobs and vocations, and yes, many different hearing devices. My jobs have included Jet mechanic, architectural model maker, industrial model/prototype maker, custom furniture maker, tooling and patternmaker at a rapid prototyping zinc and aluminum foundry, machinist, CAD draftsman, Systems Administrator, Programmer, and Systems architect. For instance, I was building patterns for aluminum castings in the early 90’s using 3D Systems 3d printed forms. This was decades before most people had even heard of 3d printing. All while living in places like California, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Connecticutt, and most recently, Philadelphia Pennsylvania.
Friends say I’ve already lived multiple lives, and I do believe that the breadth of skills I’ve developed over the years, and the life experiences I’ve had have uniquely positioned me to succeed in this challenge. Symbiaudix has required all of the hats I have earned up until now, but I need to bring on other passionate thinkers, creators, and makers with the hats that I don’t posess. That is the phase I’m entering now.
Since that first pair of Starkey’s I think they were, I’ve owned and worn various makes, models, and form-factors of hearing aids for every waking hour of every single day for over 30 years. I’ve actually lost count, but I’ve owned at least nine different pairs of hearing aids. I have more than 175,000 hours of actual in-ear wear time (I don’t sleep with them in). It’s fair to say I know a thing or two about wearable audio devices, and I definitely have an opinion about what a wearable audio device should be.
My current pair of hearing aids are digital, behind the ear type, with a balanced armature driver in an ear cup on a wire lead. They have four, pre-set, non-adjustable sound profiles that were setup by someone else using special software on a PC, while I was wearing them, sitting in a chair in an office watching. I was not allowed to adjust my own hearing aids. Special wires that plugged into the aids in my ears connected me to a special USB device on the desk that was connected to the PC.
Here’s how that office visit went:
audiologist: “How’s does this sound?”
me: “um, for in here? ok I guess, but there’s not much to really hear.”
audiologist: “good. that’s the Master profile.”
hearing-aid-voice: “bing! Master two”
audiologist: “ok, let’s setup another one called Master two.”
(tweaks some unknown settings in some unkown way)
audiologist: “ok, How’s that sound?”
me: “um, Different. OK, I guess? Hey, any chance I can get a copy of that software and one of these hub thingies so I can actually adjust it the way I want?”
audiologist: “no, that’s not possible.”
audiologist: “I’ve added in a ‘comfort’ preset…”
hearing-aid-voice: “bing! Comfort.”
audiologist: “because you’re not an audiologist. …and a ‘music’ preset.”
hearing-aid-voice: “bing! Music.”
me: “really? for what kind of music?”
audiologist: “Oh, it’s just a generic music setting that shipped with the setup software… OK, well, that just about wraps it up then.” she says, smiling, while unplugging the wires, and showing me to the counter where I put the remaining $3500 USD on my credit card.
Out in the car, I select the different presets to test them out. They cycle around in a circle, the female hearing-aid-voice preceeded by a bell noise says “bing! Master”, “bing! Master Two”, “bing! Comfort”, “bing! Music”, back around to “bing! Master”. Each voiced name is said in the tone that the profile is setting itself to. If I hold the button in, it goes “boing! Phone” which sounds totally wrong for anything, and actually makes using the phone impossible. It’s purpose? Unknowable.
Imagine bringing just your graphic equalizer in to a stereo store. The technician sets the sliders in some random way that a manual recommends, then she super-glues them into position so you can never change them again, hands the device back to you, and charges you a thousand bucks. That’s what happened to my hearing aids.
They used to also have a nifty wireless control network between them, so changing a preset on one did it to both, but that stopped working long ago, was fixed, then broke again. No biggie though, because all the presets sound variously bad, so I never bother changing away from “bing! Master” anyway.
They aren’t waterproof either, so normal sweat on my head in the Summer causes them to stop working for hours or sometimes even days at a time. The microphone is located in the part hanging behind my ear, so they work great at amplifing everything behind me that I’m not interested in hearing, but they’re not so good at having a conversation with someone right in front of me in a noisy room. They cost me $7,200 USD out-of-pocket, because they were not covered by my then supposedly very good health insurance plan.
These new-ish, and at the time I got them, state-of-the-art devices, aren’t much better than the original pair I got way back in the 80’s in terms of sound quality, battery life, fit and comfort, the ability to work with a phone, being waterproof, or resistance to feedback. They have a couple more bells and whistles, which either don’t work, are not user adjustable, or work poorly, but they still have not meaningfully addressed the real issues. That, and they cost as much as a good used car!
So while Moore’s law was ensuring that PC’s doubled in processing power for the same cost every 12-18 months, hearing aids have essentially stagnated over that same 30 year period. Well, considering most of their customers are almost dead when they get their first pair, it’s no wonder that almost no one has noticed or lived long enough to complain. In the world of hearing aid consumer, I’m a bit of an anomaly, and I’m calling their bluff, right here, right now.
Being a lifetime hardcore maker, a PC and Linux geek, a hacker, a perfectionist, a bit of an audio snob, and on top that, a deaf guy, I simply couldn’t let this stand.
So in mid 2013 I quit my job as a Linux Systems Architect for a big data analytics startup, and started Symbiaudix. I knew that if I didn’t do it, it would simply never get done. My goal: to design and build the best wearable audio device the World has ever heard.
I committed myself to design and build a new kind of audio device that solved every problem I’d experienced in my thirty plus years of wearing hearing aids. One that unified all of the sound sources in my life through a single voice controlled interface. One that let me fully control, adjust, and tweak everything exactly how I wanted it to be, all the way down to the metal. One that intelligently combined hearing aid, audiophile, PC, and cellphone technologies, and wrapped them all up into a simple yet ultimate human/audio interface for everyone. One that isn’t artificially pigeon-holed into only being for folks like me who have a hard time hearing. It’s about listening to, hearing, and controlling everything you hear regardless of source, with your own voice. Any distinction between being hearing impaired or not is pointless. We all need to hear all the sounds in our lives. There’s more sounds originating from more places now than ever before, we all want those sounds to sound great, and we all want full, intuitive, and customizable control over how we hear them. We need a simple universal audio interface.
This meta-interface is built from various constituent-interfaces:
- A physical human/machine interface that is insanely comfortable, being micro-adjustable using pressurized air to fit your ear exactly. Flexible and compliant enough to move with you as your ear cavity’s shape changes, yet firm enough be the devices’ anchor to your body. They’re completely field strippable and maintainable without tools, and they’re waterproof. It’s primary design principle: “If this were somehow grown, what would it look like?”
- An audiophile quality sound output interface, leveraging both a larger, on-ear headphone sized cone woofer for rich bass you can feel, plus a hearing aid quality balanced armature type mid-tweeter for crisp, punctual, and legible higher frequencies. For input, there’s a special MEMS mic in the Cymba of your ear for command and control, as well as three equilateral directional mics to isolate and focus ambient sounds for superb directional awareness and noise cancellation.
- An Open Hardware interface that is modularly extendable beyond the
standard compute and audio-enabled platform, accepting stackable plugin boards to add whatever additional, specialized functionality was desired. Like for instance, specialized radio hardware beyond a cellular board with LTE or GSM, hardware encryption, various sensors, projected gui, gesture control, hardware-accelerated language translator, camera, additional removable storage, or echo-location capabilities, to only scratch the surface of possibilities. All plugable boards can be simply added or removed in seconds without tools. And anyone can design, make, and sell them into the ecosystem license-free.
- An Open Firmware interface, allowing custom sound filters or voice commands to be programmed and flashed into the on-board FPGA.
- An OpenSource, Linux powered, owner hackable software stack creating a wearable personal computer, optimized for voice control and audio playback, that does what you tell it to do while on the go, as well as becoming a normal desktop computer when docked into it’s autoclaving and wireless charging chassis at home. This chassis has network, video, and USB ports for keyboard and mouse as well as additional IO devices.
- A user hackable command interface where sounds like a tongue-click, a whistle, or a phrase become shortcuts to a series of voice commands. Like, “Excuse me, I need to take this” sets the ambient mics into 90% mute mode, pauses the podcast you were listening to,and answers the call. Or a double tongue-click plus a scrape of your teeth over themselves, combined with biometric sensor data derived from the shape of your ear, logs only you into the devices when they first boot up.
- A public facing interface, allowing the sharing of information to only those you decide to share to. One that is secure, and from which your data cannot be accessed behind your back without your knowledge or permission.
- A communcations interface that allows you to connect with whomever you wish, simply and intuitively, like you are talking to them right in front of you. One that transparently behaves the same regardless of the underlying network connectivity paradigm in use. One that allows realtime virtual 3d soundspaces to hang out with your friends in, a new kind of audio-based social networking.
- A community interface, where every user can come and learn and contribute to make the entire ecosystem better and stronger for all of us.
- A distributed carrier-less mesh-based internetwork of people to provide a secure and redundant system.
- A development interface to soundspaces where groups can meet in 3d audio worlds that have programmable shapes and acoustics, and can be synchronous or asynchronous – like an audio IRC channel. A space where any sounds can be shared in the room, like an individual’s ambient environment, or whatever music a group member happens to be listening to. Positional information is known to all members, everyone shares the same ‘view’ of where each member ‘sits’ in the space, and this view is dynamic and tied in whatever programmable way seems correct to real actual positional data in the real world.
And this is just the beginning. Symbiaudix is creating an extensible human/machine audio interface platform that will transform mobile listening, hearing, communication, and the very meaning of personal computing. I hope you will join me on this quest.