Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Are You Wearing Around Your Neck? Or: Widrow's Wonderful Array

My Dad and me on Hilton Head. His sister Helen is behind him and he is, as usual, making a wisecrack.

One of the most interesting things that happened to our family in the last decade of my father's life was a curious-looking invention he wore around his neck. It looked like a black plastic necklace. But it was a high tech hearing aid, invented by Professor Bernard Widrow of Stanford University.

My father's hearing was badly damaged during the years he served on the Sixth Army Pistol Team, where he won dozens and dozens of awards firing .22s and .45s in competition. If you can believe it: nobody wore ear protection back then.

Major Chapman, far right, at a shooting competition at Camp Roberts, 1956. In that whole row of competitors, not one is wearing ear protection.

So, by the time Dad was in his sixties, he was wearing hearing aids. By the time he was in his late seventies, even the best hearing aids in Silicon Valley were not helping him enough.

His audiologist told him about a professor at nearby Stanford University who was working on a "microphone array" for use with hearing aids. My mother and father were nothing if not resourceful and determined, so they got in touch with Professor Widrow of Stanford's electrical engineering department and the next thing we knew, our Dad was wearing his black, plastic necklace.

Ashley Chapman and friend at Ghirardelli Square.

I'm not an engineer, so I can't tell you exactly how it works. I get the idea it is a sort of stereo speaker system for the ear. Professor Widrow's website says this:

"This method enables the design of highly-directive hearing instruments which are comfortable, inconspicuous, and convenient to use. The array provides the user with a dramatic improvement in speech perception over existing hearing aid designs, particularly in the presence of background noise, reverberation, and feedback."

The only part I'd disagree with there is the "inconspicuous" part.

Dad with his first great-grandson, James Ashley, in the Los Altos garden. I would say you could see that "array" pretty well, even if you were James Ashley's age.

In going through my father's things after his death, I found the Widrow array and some notes Dad and Mom had made on the instruction booklet that came with it. I knew my Dad had ceased to wear it during the last two years of his life. And I wondered what had happened to the project. It had helped my father extend the time during which he could hear our voices. Yet I had never seen the microphone array on anyone else.

So, since I figured Professor Widrow would want a follow-up on my father's case and would be interested in the positive difference it made, I mailed the microphone and my father's notes back to Bernard Widrow at Stanford. I thanked him for the work he had done that improved my Dad's quality of life.

Dad with Al the Barber, who was his friend for more than sixty years. The two veterans met as young men after WW II, in Palo Alto, California, just around the corner from Stanford University.

The good professor called me up immediately when he recieved my package to tell me he is hoping to get the device into production very soon. He was interested to learn more about how my Dad had used his, and how long it had continued to work for him. I sent him lots of photos. You can't exactly miss this inconspicuous invention.

William Ashley Chapman at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, chatting up a bloke who appears to be installing an exhibit.

I wish Bernard Widrow all the best in his effort to market and sell his device. My father was lively and intelligent and it was devastating to him to find himself treated as if he were stupid because he couldn't hear. Watching his struggle taught me so much about how callus we all are to the disabilities of others, especially the disablities of the elderly.

And every invention that comes along puts us one step further toward understanding. Each person who asked my father what that funny-looking thing was around his neck had a small lesson in what it must be like, for a bright-minded senior, not to be able to hear.

In the end the most joy my father got from the device was to be able to hear my mother's voice. It was just a little thing, when you think about it. But it meant the world to him.

Faye and Ash at the beach.

Bernard Widrow's Web Site

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Florida Beach Basics said...

how interesting! and good you took the time to provide feedback on it to the inventer. you and I may need it one of these days - does it come with rhinestones? marge

Robin Chapman said...

Professor Widrow is looking for investors, I suspect. Perhaps we ought to invest for "our future." I'd like mine in red.

Steve said...

You were so fortunate to have spent some quality time with your Dad.
btw: Have you beta tested the hearing device to see what improvements could be made? It might just be a fashion statement for us baby boomers in the near future.

Robin Chapman said...

No I didn't test it, I just sent it back to Professor Widrow. I figure by the time we boomers need the same thing they will be able to plant a chip in our eardrum that will do even better. At least I hope so, since this stuff tends to run in families. For you, it is your life!

Kelly said...

This isn't related to your blog post, but wanted to say I've just enjoyed watching your broadcast on KGW 30 years ago, the day of the Mt. St. Helen's eruption. Interesting to look back!

Vickie said...

Marge, from Fl Beach Basics, referred me to your blog.

Having lost my father, brother and mother over the past 13 months, I am touched by the healing and depth of this post. Our family relationships are never perfect. But valuing the richness they bring to our lives can be bring immeasurable comfort as we go forward. Your post and restoration project express that eloquently.

Robin Chapman said...

Thank you Vickie. Dealing with the death of a loved one is the most healing event in life--which is exactly the opposite of what I thought it would be. I think what it probably means is that not just our souls are eternal, our love is eternal too, and thus, when someone dies, it really isn't a loss at all. Just an opportunity to find love in a different place.

Alison said...

Years and years ago I went to a presentation by a Stanford professor on his invention and dearly wished for one. But I didn't have the $6000 for it and another $5k or $6k for new hearing aids with the telecom mine didn't have in order to use that professor's device.

My understanding is he never did get a manufacturer to pick up his invention, which is a shame, but he was custom-making them for each order. I have been trying to remember the guy's name and blogged about it yesterday and one of my readers sent me to you. Thank you for helping me out! I am finally going to go see if I can get one of those devices--and if Prof. Widrow has updated them to use my new Blu-tooth part of my hearing aids.

--Alison at