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John Rho: Solving the ‘Cocktail-Party Problem’ for Hearing-Aid Users

John Rho: Solving the ‘Cocktail-Party Problem’ for Hearing-Aid Users

Hi everyone, Spiffy here, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to John Rho, an entrepreneur working to make the world a better place through his work with ListenIn, as CEO and co-founder. Are you ready to be enlightened?

Spiffy: Howdy, John, welcome to the blog! What challenge are you addressing at ListenIn?

John: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! ListenIn is addressing the cocktail party problem, which especially impacts hearing aid wearers. When in a busy crowd full of dozens of people chatting at once, the primary speaker becomes drowned out, making conversation difficult for the hearing-aid user.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

John: Growing up, my dad used to tell me how difficult it was to talk in places like restaurants. He has worn hearing aids since forever, so it was always a dream of mine to tackle this issue.

Spiffy: In your own words, how would you say that ListenIn is working towards a more equitable world?

John: ListenIn wants to make hearing aids that feel very seamless and don't get in the way of day-to-day living. Whereas other solutions for communication, like sign language gloves, push the hard-of-hearing individual to accommodate others, ListenIn wants to create solutions that are integrated into the natural flow of conversation. We want to make sure hearing aids don't feel like a hindrance in these busy social settings; rather, we really want to give every wearer the confidence to talk to new people and enjoy their lives through a device that helps them hear conversations more clearly. Our goal is accessible design and inclusive functionality.

Spiffy: I love that! Tell me about a recent organization initiative and the impact it has on your community.

John: We have recently launched our app, sharing it among hearing aid wearers. Seeing these users' eyes light up when they can hear clear conversations in a busy Starbucks is such a rewarding experience. Being able to test our research/technology in action gives us the motivation to tackle these big problems and help others’ quality of living.

Spiffy: Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from it?

John: Failure is the greatest teacher. A few years ago I had worked on another hearing device that used bone conduction technology to deliver sound. I was a naive high school student who jumped into ideas and ambition too quickly, and I was extremely confident that this device could help my dad hear better in places like restaurants. But when testing it out, it was so heart-wrecking to see that it just didn't help. But experiences like these helped me research alternative solutions, and I eventually shifted my focus to software-focused approaches that led me on this path today with ListenIn.

Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?

John: When I was first learning to drive, I stopped at a green light when turning right, and my instructor failed me. I complained to him about the minor offense, but my instructor left me with these wise words: "Focus on the solution, not the problem." Next time, I didn't overthink it and just turned right on green without a complaint.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

John: Feed your creative side: design and build as much as you can while you are young and can explore the world!

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, John—it’s been an honor!

John Rho is a student at Harvard College studying Applied Math in Computer Science. In his free time, he likes to play basketball and Minecraft. (Nominated by Alex Parks at Harvard Innovation Lab. First published on the Ladderworks website on July 14, 2022.)

© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.