You can think of it as virtual reality for your ears.
Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute unveiled its Virtual Acoustic Space Tuesday, a geodesic dome loaded with speakers that will allow researchers to study how people’s brains process sounds.
“This is a device that simulates the world out there for your ears,” said Ingrid Johnsrude, director of the Mind and Brain Institute.”
“When you sit in the middle of it, you can hear sounds coming from all around you just as you do in the real world.”
Johnsrude said until now, they’ve been studying hearing by having subjects sit in a sound-proof room with headphones.
“The real world just isn’t like that,” she said. “In the world, we’re confronted all the time with complex, auditory scenes. If you close your eyes, you can hear different things happening in different places around you and your brain has to reconstruct the locations and identities of these sound sources.”
The audio dome will allow neuroscientists and audiologists to study speech and noisy backgrounds.
“One of the most common concerns of people as they hit middle age and older is difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, such as social situations and parties,” said Johnsrude. “This Virtual Acoustic Space will allow us to bring the cocktail party into the lab.”
Johnsrude said she hopes their research will be used to find strategies to help people in those situations.
Future research will also include studying how people who are blind navigate the world using sound.
“We can study the ability of blind individuals to locate sounds in space using this device and we can also study how their brains process echoes because we know that echo information carries a lot of information about space and we can simulate echoes using this tool as well,” said Johnsrude.
The Virtual Acoustic Space is operational and research is set to start after the holidays.
The audio dome was a three-year project that cost slightly less than $1-million. Funding for the project was made possible by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund.