Researchers at Pohang University of Science & Technology in South Korea developed an auditory sensor that lets people wearing face masks, such as clinicians, to communicate more easily. The device is essentially a wearable microphone that picks up the vibrations of the skin in the neck that occur when someone talks. The researchers hope that it could be useful for clinicians who must wear face masks as protection against pathogens such as COVID-19, but who also need to communicate with each other clearly. Other applications of the new device include respiratory monitoring, where the sensor could record the frequency and severity of coughs or other respiratory symptoms in patients wearing oxygen masks, or even as a way to assess vocal cord health.
The COVID-19 pandemic had many of us wearing face masks more than ever before. While the masks are a simple and effective way to reduce the risk of viral exposure, they can make communication difficult, particularly when there is lots of background noise. Muffled voices are incredibly difficult to hear over other noises. Staff in busy and chaotic emergency departments in hospitals or first-line responders to disaster zones or other medical emergencies also experience a lot of background noise, but mask wearing is also likely to be a factor in such circumstances.
To address this, these researchers have developed a wearable microphone that can detect the sounds of the voice from the vibrations of the skin on the neck, sidestepping the mouth and its cloth covering altogether. The technology consists of microelectromechanical systems, which are tiny mechanical devices that also incorporated electrical systems.
The wearable patch includes a polymer diaphragm that vibrates in response to the movements of the underlying neck skin. The system is powered by electrets, which are dielectric materials that generate electric fields. They are essentially a permanently charged material. This approach removes the need for on-board batteries.
The researchers hope that the technology will aid busy clinicians and other healthcare workers to communicate and work together more effectively in challenging situations. Other applications include respiratory monitoring for patients wearing oxygen masks, where coughs and other respiratory symptoms are recorded to detect disease exacerbation.
Study in Advanced Materials: An Electret‐Powered Skin‐Attachable Auditory Sensor that Functions in Harsh Acoustic Environments