Researchers at Northwestern University recently received some world-class help in developing their newest health aid. Detailed within a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the team enlisted opera singers to assist in designing the first wearable device that monitors users’ voices for real-time vocal fatigue and strain. Once fine-tuned, the new medical tool could soon become an invaluable asset to actors, musicians, coaches, teachers, and virtually anyone else who relies on their voice for a living.
The closed-system vocal monitor consists of a small, flexible patch that adheres to one’s chest and detects subtle changes in vibration. The device then transmits its data via Bluetooth to an app installed on users’ smartphones or tablets, and an accompanying wearable haptic device such as a smartwatch can be set to alert them for any warning signs of vocal fatigue or strain. Users can even hone their experience by clicking an in-app button whenever they experience vocal discomfort, thus enabling the program to establish personalized thresholds.
According to researchers, one of the biggest challenges involved training their monitor to distinguish between singing and speaking. To solve the issue, the team turned to a group of opera performers and professional vocalists across a spectrum of vocal ranges. These volunteers each recorded 2,500 one-second samples of both singing and speaking clips, which were subsequently fed into a machine learning program. The final algorithm used in the health monitor now distinguishes between the two forms of communication with over 95 percent accuracy.
Going forward, the team hopes to integrate its preexisting temperature, heart rate, and respiratory monitoring programs with the vocal monitor to study how all these bodily functions interact and influence one another. Gaining better insight into these complexities could one day help inform experts within vocal therapy, as well as better prevent injuries from occurring in the first place.
Although vocal injuries most often make the news whenever a popular singer cancels a tour or string of shows, they are extremely common occurrences that can befall anyone relying on their voice—that is to say, plenty of people. Basic care such as staying hydrated and warming up your voice with exercises can alleviate and prevent many issues, but additional tools such as wearable monitors could easily boost guards against the worst fallout.
“Your voice is part of your identity—whether you are a singer or not,” Theresa Broccacio, a vocal expert at Northwestern who co-led the project, said in a statement. “It’s integral to daily life, and it’s worth protecting.”