UND gets in the hearing Loop

For people with partial hearing loss, Loop technology in the Memorial Union’s giant meeting rooms will bring in speech loud and clear

Keith Holly, sales, installation and design professional with Modern Technology in Grand Forks, stands in the Memorial Union ballroom at UND, where Modern Tech is installing a Loop hearing-assistance system. The vinyl tape on the floor covers flat copper wire, which will transmit audio from the PA system to the hearing aids of people in the room. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

A whisper-soft “snap!” is what first alerted Keith Holly to the value of the Loop hearing-assistance system.

It was the sound of a priest breaking a communion host.

“I used to be an altar boy, so that was a familiar sound,” said Holly, a retired tech educator for the Grand Forks Public Schools. “But even though I wear a hearing aid, I hadn’t heard that sound for many years.”

Then Holly’s church installed a Loop, a system that transmits sound from a PA system directly to the hearing aids of people in the room. This turns each device into a miniature loudspeaker for its owner.

“When I heard that sound again for the first time, it was like … It was miraculous,” Holly said.

That’s why Holly’s excited for UND, where the Loop technology recently was installed in the giant ballroom and nearby multipurpose room in the University’s new, soon-to-be-opened Memorial Union.

“Think of all of the functions that will be held in that ballroom, such as Wake Up to UND,” said Holly, who now works for Modern Technology, Inc., the Grand Forks-based company that installed the Memorial Union’s Loop systems.

“Often at those events, there are so many of us with hearing impairments who lose half of what’s being said, and who are guessing at the other half. But now that the room has been Looped, we’ll hear it all, clear as a bell. It’s an amazing technology.”

This diagram shows the pattern of copper-wire installation on the floor of a portion of the UND Memorial Union’s ballroom. Modern Technology laid down more than a mile of flat copper wire in the space as part of the Loop technology system for the hard of hearing. Diagram courtesy of Modern Technology Inc.

First in the state

The work in the new Memorial Union building represents the first major Loop installation in any university facility in North Dakota, said Richard Wakefield, a UND alum and co-owner of Modern Technology, Inc.

“Loops have been popular in Europe for many years, but they’ve spread across the United States only more recently,” he said.

In this region, Modern Technology’s Loop installations include a large number of churches, two auditoriums, pharmacies, a ticket booth at the Engelstad Arena and two Grand Forks County Courthouse courtrooms, the first courtroom installations in North Dakota.

In a Grand Forks Herald story about the courtroom project in 2019, District Court Judge Don Hager talked about the results. “”I’m kind of a direct beneficiary of this technology, because I myself have hearing impairment and hearing aids,” Hager told the Herald.

“I used to have to wear headsets to hear some of the attorneys, even with the microphone system. … So, for me, it’s a Godsend every day to be able to sit in that Loop system. It’s a stark difference.”

And the same goes for the jurors, witnesses others in the courtroom who are hard of hearing – not to mention defendants, whose future depends on being able to hear what’s going on, Hager suggested.

‘Simple and user-friendly’

The Hearing Loop logo will be found at the entrance to Looped spaces in the Memorial Union. The “T” in the logo stands for Telecoil, and alerts hearing-aid users that the system is compatible with the Telecoils in their devices.

A Loop system basically consists of an amplifier that’s connected to the PA system in a room, and a wire. The wire then broadcasts the PA system’s audio in a way that most modern hearing aids – with the touch of a button – can detect.

In small areas such as classrooms and meeting rooms, the wire might be installed around the perimeter of the room. But in big spaces such as the new Memorial Union’s ballroom, Modern Technology laid out more than a mile of flat copper wire in a meticulous, back-and-forth pattern across the ballroom’s concrete floor. The carpeting in the finished room will entirely cover the installation.

“We measure the wire pattern precisely, so that hearing reception is uniform throughout the space,” Wakefield said.

The ballroom Loop system is further refined to accommodate the smaller spaces that the vast room can be divided into, Wakefield said

Loop systems offer big advantages for facilities, as well as for their users who are hard of hearing – a category that includes more than one out of five Americans, a 2015 article in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society reports.

For one thing, a Loop delivers customized sound by harnessing the power of the listener’s hearing aid, which already has been programmed to remedy that person’s specific hearing loss. For another, the Loop takes the signal straight from the speaker’s microphone, thus screening out the background noise that is the bane of many hearing-aid users.

For another, the three out of four people who are hard of hearing but don’t wear hearing aids can also benefit from Loop technology. Portable units with headphones or other earpieces will be made available at Memorial Union events.

“To summarize, hearing loops are the following: simple and user-friendly for people of all ages to operate; convenient, as no additional equipment is required for the user; dignified, as they utilize the user’s inconspicuous hearing device as a receiver; universal and directly compatible with any telecoil-equipped hearing device; cost-efficient for the venue, as they allow for an unlimited number of simultaneous users, while also reducing the number of receiver/headset units that must be purchased and maintained with fresh batteries; affordable for the user, as they do not require the purchase of any additional equipment; and energy efficient, as they place no drain on the hearing device’s battery,” the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society article concluded.

Spenser Narum, a software engineer, lays down copper wire as part of Modern Technology’s installation in the UND Memorial Union ballroom of a Loop system for the hard of hearing. The wire will broadcast audio from the ballroom’s PA system in a way that can be picked up by nearby hearing aids. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

‘Loopy’ ideas that work

Besides Wakefield, others who work for Modern Technology and have UND connections include co-owner Arnold Johnson, retired professor of electrical engineering, a hearing aid user himself and a strong advocate for loop technology; Djedje-Kossu Zahui, Modern Tech’s project manager, and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UND; and Lee Smith, Broadcasting Engineer 2 at the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, Electronic Technician for Modern Technology and the lead specialist for the Memorial Union’s loop installation.

By the way, the Loop technology is so useful that it might have implications for the visually impaired as well, Zahui said.

“If you walked around with a Loop receiver, you could have it set up so that you’d hear a beep, depending on your location in relation to the wire,” he said. “In other words, you could trace – with your eyes closed – the location of the wire. This could be an application for, for example, indoor navigation for blind people, as well as outdoor navigation at intersections, important buildings and the like.”

Zahui’s now applying for state and other grants to further research the technology.

Meanwhile, Keith Holly delights in his retirement work with Modern Technology, where he routinely installs Loops in churches – then sees parishioners smile, when they find themselves clearly hearing the services for the first time in years.

“I joke that I used to have to ask my wife what the priest was saying, but now she asks me,” Holly said.

“You know, years ago, I was at an award ceremony for the Grand Forks Public Schools, but I didn’t even hear my own name get called. People had to poke me and say, ‘Hey, they want you up there,” he said.
That’s what life can be like for people with hearing impairments, when they find themselves in a noisy auditorium or meeting room. “And that’s why at 71, I’m still doing this work. I love it,” Holly said.

“I feel so good about it because I’ve seen what a difference it can make. And I’ve heard that difference for myself.”