Architecture studio uses design to create immersive hearing test app

London architecture studio Kennedy Woods announces Hearing Birdsong, an immersive audio-focused app supported by Design Age Institute, which encourages people to get their ears tested

Hearing Birdsong Ipad Interface mockup of immersive hearing test app
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One in five adults in the UK lives with hearing loss, according to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. The loss of auditory perception can cause progressive social isolation, emotional distress and has strong links to cognitive decline. Despite this, the way hearing impairment is diagnosed has not changed for several decades. ‘In modern society, there is a social stigma around hearing loss and wearing hearing aids. Having your hearing checked has a very different set of associations to having your eyesight examined,' says Tom Woods, co-founder of architecture practice Kennedy Woods. For its latest project, Hearing Birdsong, the London-based firm aims to destigmatise hearing impairment and raise awareness by creating an audio-focused, immersive hearing test app that encourages people to get their ears checked – and it also has the support of the Design Age Institute (DAI) at the Royal College of Art. 

Inspired by Angela Quilley, a teacher who gradually lost the sound of birdsong during her daily walks, the project uses bird calls to provide users with an indication of their hearing health. ‘We have taken five birdsongs and digitally altered them to help us assess for potential hearing loss,’ explains Woods. Modulated sounds of the wren, song thrush, blackbird, cuckoo, and collared dove can be heard within a serene forest soundscape, as you use the app. Each sound has been altered to match frequencies used in traditional pure-tone tests. Blending rolling thunderstorms, wind-rustled trees, and dynamic water effects with clever storytelling, the project aims to remove the barriers of social stigma and poor user design. ‘We wanted to compose a soundscape that felt familiar and created a sense of tranquillity and calmness,’ states Woods. 

The Hearing Birdsong installation drawing, which led to the eponymous immersive hearing test app

Drawing of Hearing Birdsong’s physical installation

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Previously trialled as a physical installation, ‘the design of the app is the outcome of extensive testing and prototyping’, says Woods. Currently, this immersive hearing test app is not a diagnostic tool, but aims to improve the way we investigate hearing loss and hopes to inspire people to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional. Led by Woods and co-developed alongside Imperial College’s Dyson School of Engineering, audiologists, researchers, and people with hearing loss, Hearing Birdsong is one of the DAI’s six Pathfinder Projects.

Established in 2020 by Research England in response to the UK government’s Grand Challenge on an ageing society, DAI uses design innovation to meet the needs of an ageing population. Based at the Royal College of Art, the institute brings together world-renowned organisations, including the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University, the Design Museum, and University of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing, to help designers develop products and services that allow people to age happily. Through the Pathfinder programme, DAI provides design research, seed funding, and industry mentoring.

‘For us, the most exciting aspect of the Design Age Institute is that they are addressing relevant problems and are encouraging projects from all different disciplines,’ says Woods.

The hearing birdsong installation in the making at kennedy woods studio, to create immersive hearing test app

The Hearing Birdsong physical prototype in the making at the Kennedy Woods studio

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Hearing Birdsong installed in past display

Hearing Birdsong was presented at an installation a couple of years ago in London

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Shawn Adams is an architect, writer, and lecturer who currently teaches at Central St Martins, UAL and the Architectural Association. Shawn trained as an architect at The Royal College of Art, Architectural Association and University of Portsmouth. He is also the co-founder of the socially-minded design practice Power Out of Restriction. In 2023, POoR won the London Design Festival’s Emerging Design Medal. Shawn writes for numerous international magazines about global architecture and design and aims to platform the voices of those living across the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa.