New technology lets hearing impaired enjoy nuances of theater

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

People with hearing loss can now enjoy the rich, crisp sounds of theater with the flick of a switch.

Thanks to a new loop system that magnetically transmits sound, Hippodrome Theatre buffs can use their hearing aids as wireless loudspeakers and pick up clear sound from inside their ears.

"You don't need anything except the hearing aid in your ear," explained general manager Rocky Draud, "and it picks up actual sound coming from the stage. It's incredible, and we're very happy the community can take advantage of this technology."

"That's what makes it happen," Draud said, pointing to a microphone hanging from the ceiling. It's small, and barely visible.

The microphone picks up sound from the play, Draud said, then sends it to the soundboard in the control room. Once it's processed, the soundboard transmits the signal to the loop.

"It's as fast as that," he said, snapping his fingers.

The loop, which magnetically transmits sound to people's hearing aids, winds through the storage rooms surrounding the stage.

The telecoils, or t-coils, inside the hearing aid perform the magic for producing sound in response to an audio signal input — in this case, the magnetic transmission from the loop, Draud said.

Most modern hearing aids come equipped with these t-coils, Draud said. He described the technology as "a miracle."

The Hippodrome first used the technology Feb. 22.

Draud, who wears two hearing aids, said the clarity of the play was unparalleled to any other hearing-assisted service he'd ever used.

He could hear dog tags jingling, liquid swishing — details he'd missed before. "It was like listening to surround sound," he said.

The Hippodrome had worked to obtain the technology for about five years, said co-founder and producing director Mary Hausch.

Hausch said initial grant requests were denied until this past summer, when the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs Cultural Facilities Grant Program agreed to lend its support.

"We just kept applying and applying until funding was approved," she said.

Theirs was one of 12 grants awarded in the state.

"We were so excited," Hausch said. "It was a personal project for us."

Draud and Hausch's mothers both suffer from hearing loss.

"When you can't hear, you start to feel isolated because you don't feel fully involved," Hausch said.

About a year ago, Hausch said she saw a woman following a play by reading the script.

She was puzzled. "Why does this woman have a script?" she asked herself.

Afterwards, she spoke to the woman, only to find out she had difficulty hearing the actors.

"But now she'll be able to," Draud pointed out.

And she'll get a more complete experience, Hausch added.

"When you can't hear, you can't experience the thrill of the theater," she added. "The nuances are so important."

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