Pictured above: Gramatik at the Invasion stage, photo by Phil MacDonald
Earlier this month, Phoenix Lights touched down in Chandler, Arizona, April 7-8, 2018. The festival name is a nod to the original Phoenix Lights incident of March 13, 1997 when there were widespread reports of UFO sightings in Phoenix, which were later identified as flares from military aircraft. The two-day music festival pays homage to the original incident with its extraterrestrial-inspired stages, dancers, and décor. This year’s event featured artists from a spectrum of genres, like hip-hop acts Gucci Mane and Travis Scott, to dubstep/bass artists Zomboy and Seven Lions, instrumental-infused sets like Gramatik and Goldfish, and EDM artists like Diplo and Martin Garrix, just to name a few. It was the first time Phoenix Lights took place at its new venue, The Park at Wild Horse Pass. In addition to the new venue, festival producers Relentless Beats welcomed a service designed for people who are hard of hearing, provided by a company called OTOjOY. The goal of the service is to provide better listening experiences at festivals and beyond, a relevant goal as the world celebrates International Noise Awareness Day today.
OTOjOY Founder Thomas Kaufmann and Outreach Specialist Micah Thomas were available to fill in the details of the service:
The technology is known as an assistive listening system. This particular one is called a hearing loop. It was originally meant for people who are hard of hearing – either people who were born hard of hearing or people who have lost their hearing throughout their lives – to enhance their experience. They really need that clearer sound and they need amplification that hearing aids provide for their specific hearing pattern. With this technology we’re getting a direct feed, direct audio signal from the mixing console and we’re sending that to people’s ears. 80% of all hearing aids in the market today and all cochlear implants are compatible with this type of technology. People can use their existing devices and just press a button on it and they’re tapped right into the sound system. They essentially get better sound quality than anybody who just uses their ears and loudspeakers. It’s interesting because it was meant for people who are hard of hearing, but it can really provide a benefit to anybody who has ears. We’re in the process of making that shift towards serving the general public with this, and not just people with hearing loss.
Attendees with hearing aids or cochlear implants are able to connect to the OTOjOY hearing loop within about a 10-yard radius of the sound booths for the two largest stages at Phoenix lights, the Mothership and Invasion stages. Headphones are also available for anyone without a hearing device wanting to listen in. Thomas elaborates on the wireless technology used for the hearing loop:
The way it works is we have an amplifier that connects directly to the mixing console and gets that direct feed. From there, we have a wire that is embedded in the ground and acts as an antenna. The current that flows through the wire creates a magnetic field that emanates into the space. As soon as you’re in that zone inside the wired area, you can pick up the signal. It’s very directional. You essentially have perimeter control over the sound. Once you step outside of it, you don’t hear it anymore. You can even create areas that are relatively close to each other and you can step outside of one and the sound fades out, you walk into the next one and it fades in.
While using OTOjOY’s technology, one of things a listener might notice is that there is no latency between the audio from the stage speakers and the OTOjOY hearing loop. Thomas mentions that the reason for this is the tried-and-tested technology he’s using that dates back decades:
The fundamentals of this technology have been around since the 1930s. The first patent for an audio frequency induction loop system was filed in 1937. That’s how long this stuff has been around. Not with the fidelity we have today, but in essence the same principle. The actual transmission from our amplifier to the hearing device or the wearable headset receiver is analog. That’s why we don’t have any latency. Whenever you go to a digital transmission, you need to encode the signal, you need to have data packets and then you’re potentially crowding the frequency space and might end up with interference with other devices, connectivity issues, and latency. If you strip it all the way down to just the analog audio transmission, there is no delay whatsoever. You put on the device and then you just melt into the sound.
The concept of OTOjOY might sound somewhat similar to another feature common at festivals: silent disco. At a silent disco, attendees enter a fenced off perimeter where they are handed a pair of headphones, connecting them to the audio feed of the artists performing. The only audio output available are the headphones; no speakers are playing. Thomas describes the difference:
At a silent disco event, you’re somewhat isolated in your bubble with your headphones on. You can’t really communicate with the people around you, whereas with this, depending on the device you’re using, you still perceive your environment like you usually would. Then, you get this augmented layer of clear sound on top of it. That’s really what makes the difference. We call this an “open fit,” where your ears aren’t plugged up or what we call “occluded.”
In addition to the augmented audio, users of the OTOjOY app have access to real-time closed captioning via automatic speech recognition provided through the app. For an example of OTOjOY’s technology in action, including the real-time closed captioning, take a look at one of their videos.
The vision Thomas has for OTOjOY’s future is providing experiences where an event could have the volume of the loudspeaker system turned down slightly, but augmented with individual hearing devices. This would have the benefits of protecting people’s ears from being damaged and solving the issue of audio bleed-over between stages, all while giving listeners more personal control over the volume and equalizer settings to customize their experience. It also has the added benefit of potentially solving noise ordinance issues with local communities, as a result of the lowered main volume.
Originally from Germany, Thomas founded OTOjOY because of his extensive background in music and physics, getting involved in the world of electrical engineering when he was only 7 years old: “I built my first electromagnet when I was 7. My dad is an electrical engineer. That fascinating experience fueled my passion for electronics. I started soldering circuit boards when I was 12 or so. Then music came into play.”
He started DJing at parties with friends around the age of 13, landing his first paid gig when he was 15 years old. When he was 18, he started his own DJ booking agency and began performing at corporate events for companies like Audi, IKEA, and T-Mobile. Physics, electronics, and music began to mesh for him once he studied at the graduate level, completing a graduate program in physics at the University of Bonn in Germany, spending a year of research on magnetic resonance. He later moved to Santa Barbara to pursue a PhD in chemistry, continuing his work on magnetic resonance. One and a half years into his studies, he started OTOjOY, and half a year after that, he decided to leave the PhD program with a Master of Science degree in chemistry instead in order to run OTOjOY full-time. Thomas credits his international background as being a motivation for his work in the United States:
It’s interesting having that international background and the perception of how this technology is widespread in Europe and how in the US, we’re so behind on that. The infrastructure is a lot more established in Europe, leading to a bigger market for our consumer products. In comparison, here in the US, there are lots of opportunities to transform the market. Not just in the music world, but also in audiology when it comes to hearing aids. In the US, hearing aids are sold in a medical environment, where you make an appointment with a doctor in a medical suite and people feel like they’re being treated for a disease. In Europe, especially in the Netherlands and German-speaking countries, it’s all in a retail environment. You walk into a store that has the appeal of an Apple Store and it feels much more like purchasing a lifestyle product, something that enhances your quality of life. It’s a completely different perception and approach.
He breaks the US audiology market down into three segments: health — hearing aids and cochlear implants; lifestyle — personal sound amplifiers and smart earbuds, which can be similar to inexpensive/introductory hearing aids; and entertainment — headphones and earphones. He sees these markets merging into one, so that eventually, they will all provide a similar set of features and experiences. He notes that the convergence between the medical and entertainment worlds is already happening. For example, some high-end hearing aids can now stream Bluetooth audio from smartphones or media players. On the other hand, his LoopBuds incorporate features that were traditionally only found in hearing aids. However, one of the biggest hurdles Thomas sees is that hearing loop technology needs to become more widely adopted and available throughout day-to-day life:
You can think of theaters, places of worship, and movie theaters, those are the obvious ones. But, you could also use the technology at airports for gate announcements or any other type of public transportation or at ticket counters. Really, any situation where you have a glass window and people communicate through a microphone and a little loudspeaker that I can’t hear well most of the time. You could use hearing loop technology at retail stores, bank teller windows, drive-ups for fast-food restaurants, check-outs at grocery stores, their meat counters, fish counters, customer service desks. You name it. Essentially, we could create this fully integrated experience into your day-to-day life, where you wear a “hearable” all day long. Whenever you walk up to a place that features the technology, you get that clean sound and not the distorted DMV experience. ‘Now serving G zero two five at window number 12.’ I think my vision lies something like 5 to 10 years in the future, when this could really become transformative on so many levels.
Thomas sees the festival environment as a place to grow awareness and propel hearing loops into the mainstream. For now, the issue is that not enough people know that this technology even exists. Micah, the company’s Outreach Specialist comments:
If there’s an opportunity to make the system available on a larger scale, it would be fun to see how it would change things. Where we are now, not enough people know about it and people don’t know that they could have such a better experience at a concert. People put up with what concerts have become. They put up with the sound bleeding over from different stages. They put up with not being able to hear lyrics. They put up with having a ringing in their ears after a show. All those things are problems we can easily fix.
Thomas reiterates the importance of more awareness of hearing loops: “A lot of times, the need isn’t even perceived, because the people that need it aren’t aware of the technology and then don’t speak up to the promoters or the venue operators that would provide it.” He’s thankful for Relentless Beats’ early adoption and support:
Relentless Beats are one of the first promoters who are embracing and really pioneering this technology. They’re open to it, they see the importance of providing a better experience for the people who are hard of hearing and have the need for better sound quality and they’re really curious about seeing how this could be applied on a larger scale. They’re helping us push the boundaries and I think they are seeing the future.
OTOjOY has become a regular fixture at Relentless Beats events. After providing service at Phoenix Lights, OTOjOY made an appearance at ODESZA’s Phoenix stop of their 2018 A Moment Apart Tour. ODESZA have also been an early supporter of OTOjOY, and the service has made appearances at festivals like Coachella, Lightning in a Bottle, and Bonanza Campout.