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This smart wearable tells you when it’s time to be silent

Damage to the vocal cords is a fairly common occurrence among music stars. From the likes of past icons like Freddie Mercury and Julie Andrews to modern-day legends like Adele and Justin Timberlake, they’ve all had to battle vocal cord diseases – requiring surgeries to repair and weeks of not speaking to restore their voice to normal. .

The folks at Northwestern University have developed a sensor that will warn you every time you speak loud enough to strain your vocal organs and surrounding tissues. This may help avoid injuries that can permanently alter your voice and give some much-needed rest to the voice box and other connected tissues that play a role in speaking, reading, and singing abilities. It’s the latest in a series of recent wearable health developments, following news of a smart necklace that can help you quit smoking.

There is a science to calm

A wearable set for vocal stress management
Northwestern University

The team, led by bioelectronics expert Dr. John A. Rogers, a unique type of sensor that will measure the amplitude and frequency of your voice as you speak or sing. “Awareness of these parameters, either at a particular moment or cumulatively over time, is critical to managing healthy patterns of vocalization,” Rogers explained.

This set of sensors uses the readings to measure the load on the vocal cords. However, it is also capable of recording other basic metrics such as volume, speaking duration, and time of day.

The core of the innovation is the quest to track vocal stress in the real world using everyday scenarios, not just in the clinical laboratory when the damage has already been done. The wearable, which looks like a small bandage patch and communicates via a smartphone app, senses vibrations from vocal tissue rather than recording the sound with a microphone for analysis.

The first wearable that senses when your voice needs a break

The wearable device is affixed like a bandage to the bottom of the neck and between the collarbones. Every time users feel any kind of discomfort or tension while speaking, they can simply tap a button on the companion app to measure their vocal pressure. These readings will go towards putting a personal end to vocal stress.

Your smartwatch is ready for this

Acoustic measurement kit
Northwestern University

Once the threshold is set, the wearable will vibrate each time the wearer exceeds that threshold. The flexible patch contains its own battery and comes with an array of actuators to monitor sound activity in a variety of ranges. All data is transmitted via Bluetooth to the mobile application, where users can also see a graphical breakdown of their audio load.

The team also developed an accompanying wristband-like device with vibrating motors inside (see image above). Every time users exceed the audio pressure limit, the wristband will vibrate to alert them, just like your regular smartwatch. But this is the best part. You don’t need the wristband if you already own a smartwatch.

The technology works well with any smartwatch that comes with a haptic engine to generate important vibration alerts. And since there is no need to record audio data, privacy concerns have also been addressed. The team is also experimenting with adding more sensors that can measure heart rate, temperature and respiratory activity to gain a more comprehensive view of how other types of motion affect vocal systems and their performance.

Incredibly fast, easy and accurate

Wearable acoustic pressure kit.
Northwestern University

In order to train the core machine learning algorithms so that they don’t confuse singing with speaking, the team turned to opera students and classical singers. The team recorded their vocal activity patterns for a wide range of scenarios—such as singing, humming, reading, and more—to adjust algorithms using 5,000 one-second clips from each participant.

The algorithm is able to distinguish between singing and normal speaking with an accuracy of 95%.

Thanks to rigorous training, the algorithm is able to distinguish between singing and informal speaking with an accuracy of 95%. This tool will aid in data-driven analysis of voice usage patterns, allowing clinicians to suggest changes based on an individual’s vocal demand, which not only helps reduce vocal cords fatigue, but also speeds up the recovery process.

As a reminder, several singers have had surgery and followed a strict routine of not speaking for weeks to aid their recovery. It will enable patients and their clinicians to understand voice usage patterns and make adjustments in vocal demand to reduce vocal fatigue and recover from voice disorders quickly.

We don’t know when the wearable will hit shelves as a medical or commercially available device, but until that happens, the team suggests that one should practice 15 to 20 minutes of periodic silence every day because it really can. It helps the tissues of the vocal folds to recover from stress.

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