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The Technology and Beauty balance in the creation of a product

My Alma Mater, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, never ceases to amaze me with collaborative innovations from within.

A device known as W EAR was born out of the collaborative and creative talents of Michelle Temple and Eric Rosenthal.

Everything in the universe must be in balance for a stable system to exist. As a designer, you not only have to be creative in the technical aspects of the design, but in the added balance of the ergonomics and aesthetic aspects as well. Both are important in the creation of a good, robust, and successful product or system.

Michelle Temple is an artist and the “Beauty and ergonomic” co-creator of the W EAR directional microphone. This Fort Greene Brooklyn resident states, “The stigma of having a disability is non-existent with glasses, and I'd like to make something that accomplishes that for hearing.” So the device can also serve as a low-cost hearing aid supplement.

Creativity takes on many forms and has many avenues of inspiration. Temple’s graduate professor, Eric Rosenthal, and “Technical and Science” co-creator is from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University (ITP). Rosenthal has taught Basic Analog Circuits among many other courses and has been awarded 9 patents. See their website for the technology of this device. He’s a pretty accomplished audio/video expert as can be seen by his bio.

He would take the many prototypes developed by Temple and test them at NYU and then would guide and coach her technically to a final design.

Temple was developing a directional speaker for her graduate work at ITP and later realized she could use the same techniques to create directional microphone far smaller than the typical existing shotgun microphone. She takes an aesthetic view of creativity focusing upon the beauty and art of a creation. Temple says, “I take pride in my circuit boards looking pretty.” She feels that the device works better because of its beauty. A very excellent observation since her device is unobtrusive and looks similar to an iPod so that people who might be sensitive to wearing a hearing device will find that no one would ever suspect that this is a hearing enhancement. No DSPs are necessary.

The device uses a near-field, planar, and beam-forming array of ten microphones which creates a six foot zone in front of the user to enhance the conversation. The coherent sounds reach the microphones at the same time and are amplified, but the non-coherent sounds reach them at different times and are not amplified. Bluetooth was considered but it would delay the audio as would a DSP. Latency will affect the hearing challenged by making lip reading (lip synch) difficult. An Analog circuit design was chosen with no measurable latency.

Temple went through many prototypes before the final design came about. You can see some of them on her Vimeo. All the fabrication has been done in her studio. She would make a new design there and then take it to NYU and let Rosenthal test it out and give her feedback.

She learned how to build the circuit boards starting with through-hole circuit boards and made her way up to using the surface mount technique. Temple spent a few months first learning to do a surface mount assembly by hand, with tweezers and a microscope. Temple comments that the intricacy is worth it because the system works better that way, making the device much smaller and much lighter. It also enables the use of advanced MEMS microphones.

Finished surface mount product

Finished surface mount product

The device does not replace a hearing aid, but is an amazing enhancement during a conversation in a very noisy surrounding. This situation is a very common problem even for people who do not wear hearing enhancement devices right now.

The W EAR also has applications for field recording using a directional microphone, as well as for recording music or video. An example application would be aa a commentator’s microphone in which there is no need to hold a physical microphone during an interview or during a discussion/commentary.

What I absolutely love is their DIY Maker Kit with a tutorial video online as well. They’re not just in it for the money, that’s obvious. It’s refreshing to find such a company that is out to make the world a better place as their primary goal.

DIY through-hole PC board assembly

DIY through-hole PC board assembly

Please give your technical feedback and expertise on this product idea.

4 comments on “The Technology and Beauty balance in the creation of a product

  1. D Feucht
    November 11, 2015

    Inspiring project design example! In my experience, the best design engineers have been people with an artistic flair in their style of work. What could be more beautiful than an elegant circuit?

    I am glad to see the open-source DIY aspect to the project.

    The only technical question I would have is why, for phased-array acoustics, the microphones were not placed somewhat farther apart for greater phase resolution. If this array is worn at chest level, in most instances, it could perhaps be spread out more.

  2. Steve Taranovich
    November 11, 2015

    Excellent question Dennis. I'll see if I can get in touch with Professor Eric Rosenthal for an answer and his reasoning for that aspect of the design.

  3. erosenthal
    November 11, 2015

    Normal phased arrays would have the microphones spaced further apart.  Larger spacing would cause the array to focus at a far distance.  Our research and testing led to the realization that closer spacing of the microphones in a circular pattern gave us near field microphone performance.  By near field I mean that sounds within a 5 to 6 foot circle in front of the array are amplified 11 db more than sounds from outside the six foot zone.  This is due to the coherent time difference of arrival of sound waves sourced from within the 6 foot zone compared to sounds sourced from further away.  The sounds from further away do not arrive at the same time so the wave fronts do not add as much as the sounds arriving at the right temporal moment. We measured an 11 db difference.  We have applied for a patent describing the technology.

     

    Eric

  4. TomAtMuse
    November 12, 2015

    Steve: This reminded me of two things.  Technically, it reminded me of a phased-array inspired project I worked on as an undergrad at MIT in the 1980s, as a technician on a fellow student's SB thesis project. It used two ultrasonic transducers (graciously provided by Polaroid—the ones they used in cameras at the time) as both transmitters and receivers. They transmitted a pulse simultaneously, and the received echo phase difference was decoded to provide a blind user directional information on objects in the user's path. There's lots of information in the acoustic field that you can use if you have more than one transducer to map the field!

    Aesthetically, the comment about wanting the circuit board to be “pretty” reminded me of some comments by Jony Ive (famous Apple designer) in a discussion with JJ Abrams sponsored by Vanity Fair. Responding to Abram's comments on the high quality design of his MacBook being inspirational, Ive said:

    “I think the majority of our manufactured environment is characterized by carelessness.  You know, everything that has been made, there's a biography to it, there's a story to it, and it exists, really at the end of a whole bunch of decisions.  And most of those decisions were driven by price and schedule.  And we have genuinely tried to make products that don't stand testament to that sort of development process, or don't stand testament to those values.  They stand testament to us desperately trying to make the very best product we can, because we know someone like J.J. is going to sit down and stare at this screen, and he will sense—he won't be able to articulate it—but we hope that he will sense the care that went into it.  And I do believe that… we're capable of discerning far more than we're capable of articulating.  And I remember we discovered this when the iPod started to sell in some sort of volume.  And we'd been doing some fairly reckless things, like finishing the *inside* of the iPod, that cost money and it cost time.  And we did just because we thought it was right, and we had a theory that people would sense that that amount of care was invested in the object.  But it was a theory.  And when the iPod started to sell in large volumes, there was this tremendous encouragement, because it was this sense that actually people really do care.  They really do, if they're given the choice.  And sadly, we very often don't give people that choice.  It's a choice based on price or availability.”

    The full conversation is available on YouTube, titled “Inventing Worlds in a Changing One”.

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