THE sound of Scottish water is being used in a new app designed to help people suffering from tinnitus.

It has been developed by Dr Bernd Porr from the School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow and is already gaining positive feedback from people who have downloaded it.

The app, called Tinnitus Tailor, began as a research project between the University of Glasgow and the former Institute of Hearing Research (IHR) at the Royal Infirmary. 

At this point Dr Porr and colleague Dr Owen Brimijoin were teaching psychology of perception at the University of Glasgow and became interested in how people imagine sounds.

Their interest was sparked by a project completed by undergraduate Emily Tilbury who developed software which could be used as an objective way to determine how people imagine sounds.

“No one really know knows how we ultimately create the perception of sounds in our heads,” explained Dr Porr. “We know the first stage of the brain process pretty well but we don’t really know how we perceive things and how the perception of sound arises and there are a few contradictory theories.”

Tilbury’s project was based on a visual experiment where people were asked to watch a TV screen full of static then press a button when they thought they saw a face. This time people were asked to listen to static then press a button when they thought they heard an “a” or “e” sound.Even though the static contained neither an “a” nor  an “e” people consistently pressed the button at certain points – thus Tilbury found an objective way to determine how people imagine sounds.

Dr Porr and Dr Brimijoin thought it would be interesting to invert the concept and ask a tinnitus sufferer to press a button whenever their tinnitus perception was reduced while listening to different sounds. The original software was rewritten for this purpose and then it was tested positively with tinnitus sufferers. 

However, the software was just a research programme that was not very user friendly so Dr Porr decided to turn the idea into a mobile phone app. He became part time at the University of Glasgow and dedicated half his time to writing the algorithms for Tinnitus Tailor.

The app works by generating personally tailored audio sounds – the app plays modifications of different sounds and the user tells it which of these sounds are useful for them. The app uses AI to learn their preferences which can then be downloaded so they can be played back whenever the user wants. Users can create variations for different situations such as daytime or night-time.

Some apps already exist which are claimed to help tinnitus sufferers but take time to personalise and are expensive. Tinnitus Tailor is much simpler and is created by the user simply pressing “yes” or “no” to the sounds that work and the ones they find ineffective.

At the moment Tinnitus Tailor has different water sounds recorded by Dr Porr on “a nice walking trip” up Ben A’an in the Trossachs, but the plan is to add more sounds. “I have been working like crazy writing it and over the summer I will be downloading more sounds and optimising it,” he said.
People are already downloading the app, which was launched last month, and although views are mixed so far, some sufferers are finding it very helpful.

“Tinnitus is pretty varied. Some people hear just a single tone and some a whole orchestra. 

“I don’t expect that Tinnitus Tailor will cover every possible Tinnitus condition,” said Dr Porr. “We do know a composer who likes it very much and says it works for him but other people whose condition is constantly changing maybe aren’t finding it so useful.”

In monitoring the use of the app he has found that some users are only going halfway through the first process of listening so he has developed a modification of the original algorithm so people can receive instant feedback and are encouraged to continue. 

Once the listening process has been completed it is not necessary to do it again and the app can be used at any time. “I am working on it to make it really nice for the user,” he said. “The scientific approach is usually a bit more rigid but when you are working with real people you have to modify things and make them better.”

It is not known yet if any positive effects of the app are long-lasting but Dr Porr hopes they will be.

“It would be fantastic if the app suppressed the tinnitus in the long-term,” said Dr Porr.  See www.tinnitustailor.tech

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A prestigious career in audio and AI

BACKGROUND noise at a football match at Ibrox may even be recorded for use in the new app for tinnitus sufferers.

Dr Bernd Porr, the app’s developer, lives next door to the ground and is tempted to slip into a match one day and record sounds for Tinnitus Tailor.

His aim is to upload a range of different sounds to the programme so people can find out which ones best reduce their tinnitus.

Rather than the roar following a goal at Ibrox, Dr Porr says he would probably record the background noise during some average play.

He may also upload the background noise in pubs as he already has this stored on his computer as a result of the films he makes in his “spare” time.

HeraldScotland:

MIND OVER MATTER : Dr Porr of the University of Glasgow uses AI to figure out the workings of the brain.

With a string of short films and an award-winning feature film called Anna Unbound to his credit, Dr Porr jokes that he has probably been to every pub in Scotland to record background chatter.

While his main work is in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research at the University of Glasgow he has always been interested in audio. Before he came to Scotland to study for his PhD he was a sound engineer in Germany and has chalked up 500 gigs in everything from jazz to rock to radio broadcasts.

A physics and journalism graduate, he moved into AI during his PhD at the University of Stirling and developed Runbot, the fastest working robot in the world.

It is only half a metre high but if it were scaled up to the size of an Olympic runner it would be able to match the runner in speed.

Runbot attracted a fair amount of controversy when it emerged on the AI scene as Dr Porr diverged from the accepted paradigm of how people walk in order to develop it.

“Very often in science there are strong paradigms and those keep people away from changing things,” said Dr Porr. “The paradigm in science for walking is that there is some kind of rhythm generator in the spine that defines walking rhythm. That paradigm has been pushed by very powerful professors and anyone publishing anything else was criticised. But this robot was doing it according to a different paradigm so suddenly there was an alternative theory. 

“At the beginning we were attacked for it but the proof was robot which has reflexed-based walking like a toy. One leg touching the ground triggers a reflex in other leg and vice versa.”

It was three years before Runbot was perfected and when it was completed Dr Porr did not realise it was the fastest in the world.

“Then MIT said they had the fastest and because of that there was TV interest and the news was all over the place.”

Dr Porr has been working on AI topics since then, mainly trying to understand how the brain works and how to write algorithms inspired by brain function for robots. 

He has been working on the depressed brain and has just submitted a paper looking at how antidepressants work and what drugs work best.

“My research is not really in the area of audio but on the other hand the Tinnitus Tailor app is an opportunity to make a real impact and that is the reason I thought it was worth doing,” he said. 

“When you are working in science you often make software that works once and you write a paper about it then move on to the next thing, whereas I thought I could turn this into a product and help people. I would love to be able to make some money out of it but don’t think I am going to be rich!”