First wearable device for vocal fatigue developed

First wearable device for vocal fatigue developed

The first wearable device for vocal fatigue, which senses when your voice needs a break, has been developed, helping singers, politicians, and teachers

Northwestern University researchers have developed the first smart wearable device to continuously track how much people use their voices, alerting them to overuse before vocal fatigue and potential injury set in.

The first-of-its-kind, battery-powered, wireless device and accompanying algorithms could be a game-changer for professional singers, teachers, politicians, call-centre workers, coaches and anyone who relies on their voices to communicate effectively.

It also could help clinicians remotely and continuously monitor patients with voice disorders throughout their treatment.

The device is developed by an interdisciplinary team of materials scientists, biomedical engineers, opera singers and a speech-language pathologist, and adheres to the upper chest to sense the subtle vibrations associated with talking and singing.

From there, the captured data is instantaneously streamed via Bluetooth to the users’ smartphone or tablet, so they can monitor their vocal activities in real-time throughout the day and measure cumulative total vocal usage.

Custom machine-learning algorithms distinguish the difference between speaking and singing, enabling singers to separately track each activity.

With the app, users can set their personalised vocal thresholds. When they near that threshold, their smartphone, smartwatch or an accompanying device located on the wrist provides real-time haptic feedback as an alert. Then, they can rest their voices before pushing it too far.

Northwestern’s John A Rogers, a bioelectronics pioneer who led the device’s development, said: “The device precisely measures the amplitude and frequency for speaking and singing. Those two parameters are most important in determining the overall load that’s occurring on the vocal folds.

“Being aware of those parameters, both at a given instant and cumulatively over time, is essential for managing healthy patterns of vocalisation.”

Northwestern’s Theresa Brancaccio, a voice expert who co-led the study, said: “It’s easy for people to forget how much they use their voice.

“Seasoned classical singers tend to be more aware of their vocal usage because they have lived and learned. But some people – especially singers with less training or people, like teachers, politicians and sports coaches, who must speak a lot for their jobs – often don’t realise how much they are pushing it.

“We want to give them greater awareness to help prevent injury.”

See also: Stretchable battery packaging could power wearable devices

wireless wearable device

As an advocate for vocal health, Brancaccio has spent decades exploring ways to keep her students mindful of how much they use their voices.

In 2009, she challenged her students to keep a paper budget – physically writing down every time they spoke, sang and drank water, among other things.

About ten years later, she converted the system into Singer Savvy, an app that offers a personalised vocal budget for each user and helps users stay within that budget.

Separately, Rogers, in collaboration with researchers at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, had developed a wireless wearable device to track swallowing and speech in stroke patients.

The bandage-like sensor measures swallowing abilities and speech patterns to monitor stroke patients’ recovery processes.

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rogers’ team modified the technology to monitor coughing, as a key symptom of the illness.

Brancaccio said: “I wanted to gather more data and make our tracking system more precise and more accurate. So, I reached out to John to see if his sensors could help us gather more information.”

Rogers added: “I thought it was a great opportunity for us to extend our technologies beyond our very important, but narrowly targeted, uses in healthcare to something that might capture a broader population of users. Anyone who uses their voice extensively could benefit.”

The pair also partnered with speech pathologist and voice expert Aaron M Johnson to explore how the devices could be used to evaluate and monitor treatment for patients with vocal disorders.

Johnson, who co-directs the NYU Langone’s Voice Center, said the small, wireless device could help track patients’ voices in the real world – outside of a clinical setting.

Johnson, study co-author and associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, said: “A key part of voice therapy is helping people change how – and how much – they use their voice. This device will enable patients and their clinicians to understand voice use patterns and make adjustments in vocal demand to reduce vocal fatigue and speed recovery from voice disorders.

“Generalising vocal techniques and exercises from therapy sessions into daily life is one of the most challenging aspects of voice therapy, and this device could greatly enhance that process.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image: Developed by biomedical engineers and opera singers, the small, soft, flexible, wireless device sits on upper chest to monitor vocal activity in real time. When the user nears their vocal budget, an accompanying haptic device (located on the risk) vibrates an alert. © Northwestern University.

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