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Earplug featured on “Shark Tank” a Product of University Researchers' Collaboration

April 26, 2017

Photo of Jocelyn Tzu-Ling Yu, Jackson Mann, and Andrew Kersten.

Photo of Jocelyn Tzu-Ling Yu, Jackson Mann, and Andrew Kersten.
From left to right: Jocelyn Tzu-Ling Yu, Jackson Mann, and Andrew Kersten. Photo by Bert Schluach.

Shark Tank is a popular television show where entrepreneurs pitch their inventions to a panel of investors in hopes of having them invest in their products. On a recent episode that aired on January 27th in season 8 episode 14 of the show, Jackson Mann, a young entrepreneur from Minnesota, presented his product Vibes. Developed in collaboration with the University of Minnesota's Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences (SLHS), Vibes are unique earplugs that reduce decibel levels without sacrificing sound quality.

In 1970, (now emeritus) professor Chuck Speaks and colleagues published an article which concluded that live rock music concerts are hazardous to hearing. In 2006, SLHS professor Dr. Bert Schlauch and colleagues revealed in a publication that the musical genre doesn't matter—pop, heavy metal, and rock-a-billy concerts all produced hazardous levels of sound exposure. The study also found that earplugs, randomly assigned to half of the participants, offered protection. However, some participants refused to participate in the study when they learned that they were in the earplug group, because the foam earplugs distorted and muffled the sound.

Custom ear plugs are an option that work to preserve sound quality, but they are expensive and require a fitting process. Mann approached the SLHS department with his idea to to develop a new effective and inexpensive earplug. His earplugs would be designed to decrease the amplitude of music while maintaining quality. The earplugs would also need to be inexpensive, easy to obtain, and practical to use. This would allow musicians, concert goers, and anyone exposed to loud noises to preserve their hearing while still being able to fully experience the range of sounds around them.

Intrigued by the potential of this project, Dr. Schlauch recruited the help of two of his graduate students. Jocelyn Tzu-Ling Yu, a PhD candidate, works on cochlear hearing loss and its impact on communication. She describes herself as a "speech person who became intrigued by hearing." Andrew Kersten is a Doctor of Audiology student who received his undergraduate degree in philosophy, but then became interested in the physiology of hearing. Both students were hired by Mann, and then faced the challenge of testing and measuring the effectiveness of an innovative earplug.

Mann presented the SLHS team with two prototypes. They tested both in the Multisensory Perception Lab in the University's Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science (CATSS). The prototypes differed in diameter and mechanical components. Each prototype was tested to determine how well they maintained the quality of the sound while reducing the amplitude to a safe decibel level. The team had subjects wear the earplugs and sit in the lab surrounded by speakers. Kersten and Yu then tested how the ear plug affected attenuation at different frequencies. The goal was to change the level at all frequencies equally. If one frequency decreases an amplitude more than others, it distorts the sound, resulting in a muffled or unpleasant listening experience. They were able to find the perfect balance between quality and sound attenuation and as a result, "Vibes" was born.

Vibes earplugs are now being sold online at www.discovervibes.com and can also be found on Amazon. They provide a safe and high-quality listening experience and a portion of the proceeds also benefits the Hear The World Foundation, which helps fund hearing projects for those in need. Additionally, it has been a great experience for the SLHS students involved in the creation of this product. "Working with Vibes had sharpened my skills in cooperating on a research project with a non-academic institute and has taught me the importance of public awareness in hearing loss prevention," Yu said.

"We were glad to play a role in the development of this product with a start-up company in the Twin Cities," Schlauch said. "It provided a wonderful experience and a source of funding for our students, and it helped to launch a product that will preserve the hearing of its users."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.