CSU engineers get technical expertise from student with hearing loss

Video by Ron Bend, CSU External Relations

Story by Sona Srinarayana, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Colorado State University engineers developing a mouthpiece for the hearing impaired have received technical help from someone whose own life could be touched by the technology.

Paxson Matthews, who is hearing impaired, spent the summer at CSU as an intern in the lab of John D. Williams, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The mechanical engineering student at Gonzaga University joined a team that includes Williams, graduate students JJ Moritz and Marco Martinez; Leslie Stone-Roy, assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and Matthew Schultz, an electrical engineering industry professional. The researchers are working on a device that fits in the mouth and allows sound to be processed through the tongue, instead of the ear. They have formed a company, Sapien LLC, to continue iterating the technology.

First-hand experience

At age 6, Matthews was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type II. Tumors that grow on his central nervous system inhibit his ability to hear, and the majority of hearing aid devices available today don’t address Matthews’ neurological disorder. Matthews has had countless surgeries, including one that was 40 hours long.

An undergraduate at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, Matthews had read about what the CSU team was doing, and he reached out to them last year about becoming part of their team. Williams brought Matthews in as an intern, and Matthews worked this summer on improving the device. His first-hand experience with hearing loss provided even deeper insight into how the technology could be improved.

“My goal is to help people. I’ve had a lot of help along my journey and I want to show everyone that their investment was worth it. I hope we can all work together and change the world,” Matthews said.

Lower-power solution

Matthews wants to integrate electromagnetic communication and smart phone technology to improve the functionality of the device. A smartphone would pick up an audio signal and process it into an electrical format. The signal would then be transmitted through body tissue using proprietary technology, and would be received by the mouthpiece using much less power than Bluetooth communication, which is how the device currently operates. Matthews’ design may eliminate the need for a battery in the mouthpiece altogether.

The CSU team is continuing to work on device prototypes and hopes to continue testing improved designs this year.