CSUF computer engineering professor aims to create low-cost hearing aids

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Throughout his career, Cal State Fullerton associate professor Kenneth John Faller II, Ph.D., has always strived to combine the worlds of computer engineering and health care.

Faller’s passion to help those with physical impairments can be traced back to his days as a graduate student at Florida International University where his master’s and dissertation advisor, Armando Barreto exposed him to the work that would soon become his passion.

“I found it inspirational. Since then, I’ve always wanted to apply assistive technology to help people,” Faller said.

This past summer, Faller worked with Project RAISE, a Cal State Fullerton program for STEM transfer students, on the Silent Music Program, where they attached microcontrollers to motors to break down songs into bass vibrations which helps those with hearing difficulties to “feel the music rather than just listen to it,” as Faller said.

At the start of the year, Faller began a research project to create low-cost hearing aids. Graduate student Amol Mane works with Faller on the project and said that most hearing aids only amplify sound rather than focusing on one particular conversation, which can become chaotic to people who use them.

“We are trying to develop an algorithm which will remove all the chaos and it will only pick the sound or segregate the sound (the person) wants to hear,” Mane said.

Faller said he plans to replace the standard processors of hearing aids using inexpensive digital signal processors (which are often found in cell phones to instantaneously differentiate sounds) to make hearing aids more affordable.

Faller also noted that the steep cost of hearing aids is typically the biggest detractor that stopped people from buying them and Medicare often doesn’t cover it. Currently, hearing aids usually cost a few thousand dollars but if Faller’s research is successful, he’s hoping to drop the price down to under $100.

Faller’s enthusiasm and knowledge encouraged audiologist and part-time faculty for the Communicative Disorders department Maria Grijalva, to work on the project.

“He’s very passionate, and I love the work that he’s doing,” Grijalva said. “We definitely need more people like him.”

Although only in the beginning stages, Faller hopes Grijalva can take his hearing aids with her to Mexico to her nonprofit organization, the Flying Samaritans, and help people with hearing disabilities.

“(In Mexico) if a child doesn’t hear well, then they get pushed out of school because they can’t keep up with their peers. So if there’s a cost-effective way to get them hearing better, then I’m all for it,” Grijalva said.

Mane works alongside Faller and appreciates his willingness to let students take risks, noting Faller’s attitude for experimenting rather than only speculating.

Faller will submit his research proposal with computer engineering assistant professor Kiran George, Ph.D. for the National Institutes of Health AREA Grant. He will also be presenting his research at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers sponsored by Asilomar Conference on Signals, Systems and Computers this October.

Second only to his passion for assistive technology, is his love for teaching. After completing his postdoctoral research at the NASA Langley Research Center, Faller came to CSUF in 2011.

Barreto inspired him to follow his drive for teaching.

“He makes it sound like it’s the best job in the world, and it is,” Faller said. “(My students) have different perspectives. Sometimes I’m kind of stuck in my ways and they’ll say ‘Dr. Faller, why don’t you look at this?’ and it’s just a fresh perspective.”

Education has always been important to Faller since he was young, despite it not being a prominent aspect in his family growing up.

Outside of the classroom, Faller furthered his desire to educate by co-hosting a summer robotics program for children through University Extended Education to spark interest in the STEM fields using Legos and circuit kits.

Growing up, Faller didn’t have a clear understanding of what engineering exactly entailed.
Faller’s determination to create a better understanding of all the different variations within engineering was another motivating factor during the summer robotics program.

“I feel almost a responsibility to educate the youth about the possibilities of doing engineering,” Faller said.

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