Deceptively simple gadget could boost Siri’s hearing

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Siri sound sensor
This honeycombed disk may help Siri understand you better someday.
Photo: Steve Cummer, Duke University

Siri typically works pretty well when you’re just sitting around at home — or at least, it can usually hear you just fine. Whether or not you get the results you need is another question, but a prototype device created by engineers at Duke University could one day help Apple’s digital assistant understand you just as well if you’re in a crowded room or a car.

It’ll just have to get a little smaller first.

The prototype, which is about six inches in diameter, looks like an air filter from a vacuum cleaner. It’s a round, honeycombed bit of plastic with spokes running out from the center that divide the whole thing into “slices.” The holes in each slice are different depths, so they react differently to sound passing over them.

“The cavities behave like soda bottles when you blow across their tops,” said Steve Cummer, an electrical and computing engineer professor at Duke (via EurekAlert). “The amount of soda left in the bottle, or the depth of the cavities in our case, affects the pitch of the sound they make, and this changes the incoming sound in a subtle but detectable way.”

What this means is that when the developers hit the gadget with sounds from different directions, it can separate those noises and distinguish between them with a 96.7 percent rate of accuracy. And what that means is that if you had this in your iPhone, Siri could isolate your voice from all of the noise in your surroundings and just ignore everything that wasn’t you.

The developers see a number of different applications for this technology, including medical diagnostic devices like ultrasounds.

“I think it could be combined with any medical imaging device that uses waves, such as ultrasound, to not only improve current sensing methods, but to create entirely new ones,” said Abel Xie, a graduate student at Duke and the lead author of the paper describing this tech. “With the extra information, it should also be possible to improve the sound fidelity and increase functionalities for applications like hearing aids and cochlear implants.

The challenge for researchers now is to miniaturize the prototype to make it usable in a variety of devices because really, the iPhone 6 Plus was large enough.