What’s in a work space? Owen Brimijoin and his hearing research habitat
Dr Owen Brimijoin is a Senior Investigator Scientist at the Scottish Section of the MRC Institute of Hearing Research in Glasgow, where his research investigates the relationship between hearing and the dynamic three-dimensional world around us. He showed Jane Bunce around his shared office at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, where his desk is no stranger to Lego.
People’s ability to tell where sounds are coming from declines with hearing impairment, and understanding speech in noisy rooms becomes harder. One in six people in the UK have a level of hearing loss that warrants a hearing aid, but they often don’t perform as well as desired. We examine this in four soundproof rooms of varying sizes, with floating floors, double steel doors and the walls covered with foam to suppress sound reflections. We use loudspeaker systems in these to control the source of the sound precisely or play multiple sounds from different directions, to simulate environments like a noisy restaurant.
Once you’re at full capacity running experiments you can’t go into the booths because they are booked up, so all the programming and testing for the next experiment has to happen here at my desk. So this is a mock-up of the system that runs the big ring of loudspeakers in one of our soundproof booths.
I’ve been playing for 26 years. Sometimes you get fed up with what you’re doing, and it’s just a good break. I mainly play bluegrass and I’m trying to learn ragtime. There are a lot of musicians here at the IHR and there’s a higher than average number of musicians in hearing research in general — it attracts people interested in sounds. We have guitarists here, a concert-level oboe player and a violinist, and Dr Bill Whitmer holds a monthly residency at a venue in the city centre.
The IHR is based in two places, Glasgow and Nottingham, and we do try to get together regularly. I won this medal at an IHR student day, when students and advisors went to a bar in Nottingham that had a big shed out the back with slot racing cars. We have two student days a year and two science days, when we present our latest findings to each other, to make sure we know what each other are doing and discuss our experiments when they’re still in the design stage — it’s good to get feedback before you go too far down the wrong track.
We build prototypes out of Lego. Once you’ve built something in metal it’s hard to adjust, but you can use Lego to figure out the optimal distances and arrangements. I’ve built a motion tracking ‘crown’ out of Lego and a frame for measuring the position and angle of our loudspeakers in our soundproof rooms. This is actually my childhood Lego set brought over from the States.
We bought these off the shelf and we use them in our hearing test experiments — for example, we ask people to press a button when they’re pointing in the direction of a woman’s voice, or press the right button if the sound is moving right. The cameras in them can also be used to do head tracking to move sounds around someone as they move. We have very accurate and stable motion tracking systems for the soundproof rooms, but these little remotes cost only £30 and the software we’ve written to go with them means I can do head-tracked audio at my desk.
Photograph and fossils
These are from the Isle of Skye, off Scotland’s northwest coast. The fossil is a Jurassic-era ammonite. The photograph is of the ruins of a cottage overlooking the fossil grounds — my wife and I found it one day when we scrambled up this waterfall and there it was. It’s not on any map. Most of the travelling we do is in Scotland. I was a Career Development Fellow on a three-year post when I moved to Glasgow from the US, so thought of it as a brief adventure; we didn’t know how long we were staying so we decided to travel as much as possible in Scotland. Now we just love it and we don’t want to go anywhere else.
Bat etched in glass globe
This is from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. A friend gave it to me, because my dissertation was on how bats process complex sound. I was a neurophysiologist by training. Donald Griffith, who discovered that bats use echolocation to navigate, was academically my great-grandfather — my advisor’s advisor’s advisor. When he made the presentation at a scientific meeting that bats use sonar, he was taken aside by naval intelligence — sonar was a highly-classified technology at the time and they were offended that bats could do it!
This was from a brief and ill-fated attempt to design a loudspeaker enclosure. It’s a section of high-pressure pipe, used in municipal delivery of fresh water to houses, found on the side of the road. We thought it might be useful as it’s round and you don’t want parallel surfaces in a loudspeaker, but it proved too complicated. It’s here as a reminder that sometimes we need to buy things rather than trying to build everything ourselves.
You need to have some technical skills to do this job though, as we need to develop the tools to do the research first. We’ve made loudspeaker arrays, custom-built motion tracking systems, LEDs to track people’s position. We have to build a lot ourselves, for better or for worse. If someone off-site builds something for you it’s too late to change — but here we can tweak it as we go.
Directional hearing aid prototype
This is an early prototype of an experimental directional hearing aid we built in collaboration with the University of Glasgow. The theory is that it would amplify sound based on what you’re looking at by measuring which way the eyes are pointed using electrodes in the ear. We tried an older version of it out on me — I had to cram some button electrodes into my ear canal, which was pretty uncomfortable! It’s an exciting project because there’s a lot you could do to improve hearing aids if you know what someone is looking at.
Read more about Owen’s work in our feature on the role of workshops in research.