Virtual reality games are helping deaf children in Britain understand speech

Scientists have attracted a special ally in their efforts to help children overcome profound deafness. They use computer games to increase the children’s ability to localize sounds and understand speech.

The project is known as Bears – for both ears – and is intended for young people who have received double cochlear implants because they were born with little or no hearing.

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

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

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

“By using computer games we can help the person increase their ability to localize sound and thereby understand speech.”

All kinds of factors influence how a person picks up sounds, Picinali added, 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 increasingly faint until they can only be located by acoustic cues. Others require players to use differences in pitch to aim at sound-emitting targets.

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

Unlike hearing aids, which only amplify sounds and are therefore of little use to deaf children, cochlear implants – which are placed on the skull behind the ears – convert vibrations in the air into electrical signals that can be transmitted to the brain, where they are transferred to the brain. are experienced as sound.

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

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“An implant is a lifeline for deaf children, but it is not easy to get used to it,” says Picinali. “We needed to find ways to make it easier for them to understand the signals sent to their brains – and training with computer games should make a vital difference. What we do is help them re-map their hearing systems.”

There are around 6,500 children in Britain who are profoundly deaf and for whom a cochlear implant is the only hope of restoring their hearing. With the help of University College London’s extensive clinical trials unit, the project – led by Debi Vickers from the University of Cambridge and Dan Jiang from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, will recruit and train more than 300 young people with hearing difficulties. will be completed in approximately 18 months.

It is hoped that the end result will not only help children with cochlear implants, but could also make a major improvement in the hearing of all deaf children, around 50,000 children in Britain.

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