Hearing Loss and Virtual Reality

As we inch closer to immersive virtual reality worlds as seen in the movie "Ready Player One," will people with hearing loss be able to participate? Learn how developers are making this technology available to all.

The new movie Ready Player One takes place in a near future in which people spend their time with their eyes and ears plugged into the OASIS, a vast digital world in which they shop, work, and play. While science fiction, the OASIS and the virtual settings introduced in earlier films like The Matrix and Tron, seem more possible than ever before. After all, many of us are already glued to our computers and smartphones most of the day, so it won’t be such a huge leap.

But as virtual reality only becomes more present in our lives, how will it impact people with hearing loss? Will they be able to participate, or will they be left behind?

Virtual reality for everyone

In Ready Player One, the creators of the OASIS made sure that access to the virtual world only cost 25 cents, so it could be enjoyed by all. Fortunately, today’s virtual reality technology developers are working to make their solutions inclusive for everyone, including those with hearing loss.

Since virtual reality utilizes sound as much as sight, developers already have numerous options to help people with limited hearing. For instance, real-time speech captions will allow people with hearing loss to understand and interact with others instantaneously. Developers are also expanding the use of vibrations and haptic feedback (simulated sense of touch), so those with hearing loss don’t miss out on the multi-sensory experience of the virtual world.

Additionally, special gloves that capture the movements of sign language have been created, enabling people with severe or total hearing loss to communicate with their virtual peers. There are also virtual sign language interpreters that can translate speech to sign language to make communication easier and more accessible when a human interpreter isn’t available.

Enhancing hearing loss research

Virtual reality also unlocks new possibilities in the research of hearing loss, as demonstrated by the Boys Town National Research Hospital in their study of hearing loss and its impact on children at school. Since conducting such research in a real classroom lacks experimental control, and putting video monitors in a lab does little to make it seem like a real classroom, researchers turned to virtual reality. With a virtual classroom, patients put on a headset and are immersed in a realistic classroom setting, making them feel more comfortable and resulting in more accurate testing of their hearing in noisy situations.

The future of hearing loss and virtual reality

While fully immersive virtual reality worlds as seen in Ready Player One may still be a way off, Signia is already at the forefront in building upon this growing field. For example, our myHearing™ App enables patients to meet face-to-face with their hearing care professional remotely and have their hearing aids tuned without leaving home. As virtual reality continues to advance, we’ll find new ways to leverage it in the hearing health field and help more people receive the greatest benefit from their hearing aids.