Wakefield Hearing Center expands looping technology in Grand Forks region
Technology allows for delivery of signal directly to listener's ear
GRAND FORKS – Wakefield Hearing Center has partnered with a company called Modern Technology Inc., to develop “looping technology” throughout the region. The goal is to deliver high-quality audio for the hearing impaired in large venues.
Richard Wakefield, owner of Wakefield Hearing Center, said looping is superior to other audio assistance technologies such as FM networks, due to looping’s ability to deliver a signal directly to the listener’s ear.
“A lot of churches operate on FM systems which are operable, but don’t have the precision that looping does for use in large auditoriums,” said Wakefield. “Looping allows someone wearing a hearing aid to get the signal directly to the ear.”
Another advantage of looping technology, according to Wakefield, is its ability to eliminate ambient noise present in larger venues, such as sports arenas.
Wakefield said that in order for hearing aids to be compatible with looping technology, they must contain telecoils, or “t-coils” – copper wires embedded inside the device that can receive the electromagnetic signals that looping networks emit. He said roughly half of the hearing aids on the market today contain t-coils.
“Ideally, we’d like to have a much higher percentage. We’d like to have everyone using t-coils,” said Wakefield. “When you have that capability in your hearing aid, you can sit in a corner of an auditorium with serious hearing loss, and background noise won’t affect you.”
Wakefield Hearing and Modern Technology has looped several venues in the Grand Forks region, including the Ralph Engelstad Arena, Fire Hall Theater and the Grand Forks County Courthouse. Additionally, the partnership has looped churches in Crookston and Fisher, Minnesota, with plans to loop the St. Paul’s Newman Center, a Catholic worship center on NDSU’s campus in Fargo.
Wakefield said his partnership with Modern Technology began through a chance encounter with an electronics inventor in the late 1980s.
“The first person I found was an inventor named Shawn Rhen. I saw him in an electronic shop when I was on the road, and I noticed what he was doing and was taken by it. I can still remember looking through the area he was working in. I went back a couple of times and talked him into joining me. Then in 1991, I met Arnie Johnson who was an electrical engineer at UND and we formed a partnership.”
Wakefield said the first efforts to develop a marketable looping product in the early 1990s were tedious and offered meager financial rewards.
“This group came together, and we worked on Saturdays trying to develop a product,” said Wakefield. “We filled up wastebaskets of ideas over many Saturdays. The first product invented by Modern Technology didn’t make us a ton of money – it was just a case of trying to get something going. Eventually the first product we developed ended up being used on (former astronaut) John Glenn’s last spaceflight, which created the seed money for us to stay alive.”
However, Wakefield said profitability remained elusive. That put the partnership’s future in question.
“About 10 years ago, we were ready to go out of business,” said Wakefield. “We conceived of certain things and some of them came to pass technically, but we weren’t able to make any revenue off of them."
Wakefield and his partners then drew inspiration from their counterparts in Europe, a continent where Wakefield says looping technology has been established for the better part of five decades.
“I noticed looping was being done in Wisconsin by a pretty innovative audiologist from Denmark,” said Wakefield. “Europe has been much further ahead on looping than us. They have hundreds of thousands of loops in northern Europe, driven a lot by governments. I picked up on that technology, looked into it and asked our group if they were willing to take a step in that direction. Of course they did, and as a result we started very slowly developing products.”