Sept 2015 Kotaku Australia kotaku.com.au
“When you hear this kind of bird call, press the big red button,” blurts a pair of headphones plugged into an iPad. Clayton is playing a game. He’s attentive, smart, competitive, and keen to impress a teacher who he knows thinks he’s dull. After completing a few challenges, he’s now watching several birds flying across the screen — but pressing nothing. Within a few days, Clayton sees an audiologist recommended by his short session with a videogame, and he gets treatment for an issue that would have severely set him back over the next few years. This is the vision of Sound Scouts.
cmee4 Productions is three people — Carolyn Mee as the producer, with developer Cuauh Moreno, and collaborating with Dr Harvey Dillon, Director of the National Acoustic Laboratories. They’ve been trying to weave together the tech, business, and scientific solutions for an app that catches hearing problems in young children before it seriously hinders their progress, and the result is Sound Scouts.
From left to right: Carolyn Mee, Cuauh Moreno, Dr Harvey Dillon
“The figures, year on year, show a peak in hearing aid fittings in kids between the ages of 5 and 8,” said Carolyn Mee. “But kids don’t get tested at that age. We test them at birth, but mainly for one type of hearing loss.” After that point, aside from some vigilant private schools and other programs, kids aren’t tested again — and it only gets picked up when they start to do badly at school.
“They’re vulnerable,” says Mee. “Their speech is impacted. They’re often put in the lowest reading group, the children assume they’re dumb, and the impact on their self esteem is significant. You have to claw back that self esteem at the same time as catching up on reading.”
Sound Scouts is an easily accessible program, in game form, to identify these problems as kids are entering their early school days. Most similar software solutions at the moment are “tone detectors” which purely test for hearing loss, but not auditory processing disorder.
Mee remembers having firewood delivered to her house by a bright and talkative young man, who admitted to dropping out of school. He said he just couldn’t hear in the classroom. He described classic symptoms of auditory processing disorder, without having been told what Mee does for a living. “I told him to wait there while I got my game.”
As you’ve probably guessed, the app identified a hearing problem — Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), which affects how the brain processes audio information. Funnily enough, the treatment for CAPD is a game which retrains the brain over 12 weeks to be able to separate sounds in a noisy environment. “It will stay with me forever, how excited he was to discover that there was a reason.” That gives you an idea of how sneaky hearing disorders can be, with some going through life simply unaware, or worse, believing there’s a problem with their intelligence.
In the case of otitis media – which can cause fluid to build up behind the eardrum until hearing is impacted – it can be hard to even know there’s a problem because there’s not always pain. But as Mee found out in the earlier stages of her career, sometimes the most dangerous conditions are when the sufferer isn’t suffering.
Her real inspiration was a man named Kelvin Kong, Australia’s first Indigenous cochlear implant surgeon. Having heard about him in the capacity of a video producer, Mee visited Kong’s when he was volunteering at a Broome-based clinic where he operated on the ears of adults and children. “I spent five days with him in his clinic and saw all these gorgeous young kids coming in from all over. They have significant hearing loss, and suddenly they go from being very bright little kids to to becoming disengaged if their loss isn’t treated. “I was meeting 50 year old women whose eardrums had been burst or destroyed when they were kids, and they were having them repaired.” Otitis media is very prevalent in Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities. Children who suffer recurrent episodes are at risk of developing conductive and senorineural hearing loss.
For those in rural Australia with less access to funds and treatment, the cost and accessibility of hearing tests becomes a life-changing issue. And while seeing an audiologist could run somewhere between $100-150, playing Sound Scouts will be closer to $15 — discounted to $9 for large groups such as schools.
Sound Scouts isn’t aiming to replace audiologists or any kind of specialist, but it will be able to identify hearing problems, and even discern between types like sensorineural & conductive loss and CAPD before referring the user to the proper kind of specialist and treatment. Around 50% of Australian homes have a tablet, but the accessibility of the app doesn’t stop there. A secondary market for Sound Scouts is programs that can reach a large number of children. Schools are a perfect fit, as well as other youth programs and businesses. Some pharmacies are pushing into delivering health care screening solutions, and Mee points out that the larger ones even have their own rooms where you can get checked for various things.
Mee is a bit of a perfectionist with her tech, and doesn’t want to shout from the rooftops until it’s perfect. It’s a curse many creatives suffer from, but there’s a good reason for it here: She’s putting the science first. “Among many categories we technically fall under, one of them is ‘tech startup’,” she says, “and that community is all about bringing it out straight away. And of course, in the gaming world, your first week is what defines your success. I’ve had to set new standards, and establish new ways of doing things. What I’ve built is not the same as a casual game. It’s a game, but it’s a clinical application, and I can’t say it’ll test a kid’s hearing unless I know it’ll do that well.”
Sound Scouts is well set up for Australia. Children’s hearing aids are subsidised here, and there’s a clearly identified problem with no universal testing solution. According to Mee, 3-5% of the country may have some level of CAPD, and a survey of parents has shown that the biggest barrier to getting kids tested is finding the hours around their work schedule, making a 15-minute app ideal. But it’s a solution that governments, businesses, schools, and parents all over the world will be interested in, and that kind of global scaling holds challenges for Sound Scouts’ three person team.