Geoffrey Ball was one of the first people to receive a middle ear implant. And no wonder – he invented it himself. The pioneer talks about growing up deaf and what it was like to find a solution to his own – and others’ – hearing problems.
A technological adventure between Silicon Valley and the Alps
Geoffrey Ball reaches with both hands into a box. From the thick foam, he carefully pulls out a black metal container, its end sporting a giant lens. “Does it still work?” he asks the room of technicians seated at laboratory desks. Heads nod in unison.
With almost an air of reverence, the engineer turns the shoe box-sized container in his hands. It’s the original laser he used to measure a human ear down to the millimetre for the very first time nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Geoffrey Ball is a master of his craft. At scientific conferences, his younger colleagues freeze in awe when they catch sight of him sitting in the first row to listen to them. The Californian has dedicated his whole life to one question: how can I give deaf people their hearing back?
To achieve this, he studied hard, spent whole nights in laboratories and days fiddling around in his parents’ garage in the Californian Silicon Valley. All that time, he was driven by something that other scientists only knew from their measuring instruments and fact sheets: Geoffrey Ball has been deaf since childhood. It’s Friday in an office block on the outskirts of Innsbruck, Austria. Outside, the sun is shining; inside, a few technicians sit at large laboratory desks. Their boss strolls past in his blue blazer and teddy bear tie. On the walls, he has a few of his 113 registered patents on display. For 12 years, Geoffrey Ball has been Technical Director at MED-EL.
A dream come true
“The details of our work are secret,” says Geoffrey, as he leads me past highly sensitive microphones and soundproof metering chambers. Sometimes he strokes his short brown hair behind his ears. There, just visible, is his life-changing invention: the Vibrant Soundbridge – a middle ear implant that directly stimulates the ossicles (three little bones that are vital to the hearing process) using mechanical impulses. In 1997, he was the fifth person to have it implanted. It was the dream of a little boy, which finally came true after many years. It would lead him from Silicon Valley to Innsbruck and finally let him hear music, the crashing of the waves and twittering of the birds.
The story to his self-cure
Geoffrey grows up in 1960s Sunnyvale, California, USA. At age five, his hearing deteriorates. Up until today, nobody is sure why, though it’s thought that it was probably triggered by a high fever.
The young Geoffrey learns to lip-read and wears hearing aids. Back then, they were the only technical solution available and rather basic – clunky, uncomfortable, crackling things. People stare so much he almost prefers not to wear them. So he decides to invent something better. Geoffrey Ball is going to ‘cure’ himself. It’s the 1980s before he can finally start working on it. Although the first cochlear implants exist, they are not suitable for him. Cochlear implants are designed for people with severe to profound hearing loss. Geoffrey’s hearing loss is not quite severe enough to put him in this category. Geoffrey becomes a researcher at the elite Stanford University in California.
Over several years, he builds a device that changes everything – it’s called the Floating Mass Transducer. Instead of just amplifying the sound waves and pumping them into the ear from outside, as with a hearing aid, the new implant delivers the sound waves as vibrations directly to the middle ear. This stimulation of the middle ear provides exceptional high-frequency sound perception.
“When I grew up, these technologies didn’t exist,” he says. “Today we have several solutions for many types of hearing loss. We have ‘cured’ hearing loss.” In 1996, the first patient received Geoffrey Ball’s middle ear implant – it is still working today.
But after long clinical studies, when Geoffrey is finally ready to pick up speed with his company Symphonix, disaster strikes. Two planes crash into New York’s World Trade Center, the stock market collapses and Symphonix’s shares drop. In desperation, Geoffrey picks up the phone. He simply can’t allow all those years of research and development, and his many patents, to disappear in insolvency. The woman whose number he dials is Dr Ingeborg Hochmair. The Vienna-born electrical engineer has been developing and producing hearing implants for years and, together with her husband Erwin, founded MED-EL in Innsbruck. A few hours after the telephone conversation, she’s on a plane to California. “I still don’t know how she managed to get here so fast,” says Geoffrey. It’s an 11th-hour rescue. MED-EL offers him the chance to bring his whole research and production to Innsbruck. He says yes. It’s been some years since he moved to the Alps with his wife Sabina. “I’ll definitely stay,” he says. “My three children are born here and have grown up speaking German.”
The resourceful inventor from Silicon Valley has adapted well to Innsbruck. Together with his new colleagues, he invented another implant called the Bonebridge. It converts sound waves into mechanical vibrations that are transmitted via the skull bones directly to the inner ear. This is another small revolution. Geoffrey has kept the idiosyncrasies he brought with him all those years ago – the walls of his office are painted black, the air-conditioning blows frosty air into the room. “I have always been able to focus best in dark, cool libraries,” he laughs.
Actually, he doesn’t spend as much time in libraries or laboratories as he used to. Being a director, he attends congresses, organises paperwork and leads his staff – two dozen of them. They are the ones who bring his work to perfection, who fiddle about in the laboratories. They look for new ideas to make everyone hear better. The audio processors improve year by year – now children can play and go swimming with the latest devices, though there’s still scope for improving sound.
“There are always new challenges,” says Geoffrey Ball. “Once you reach one mountain top, you often see that there are more waiting behind it.”
How do these implants work?
The VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE consists of two parts: an audio processor, which is held behind the ear by a magnet, and the implant. Unlike the cochlear implant, which works by stimulating the auditory nerve in the cochlea, a spiral-shaped tube in the inner ear, the Vibrant Soundbridge targets the middle ear. Here a tiny, vibratory cylinder called the Floating Mass Transducer (FMT) is attached to the ossicles, three tiny bones in the middle ear that play a key role in hearing. With its help, the sound waves that are received by the audio processor are transmitted as mechanical vibrations to the ear.
The BONEBRIDGE, on the other hand, transmits mechanical vibrations via the bones of the skull directly to the inner ear. It is suitable in cases when sound cannot follow the natural path through the outer and middle ear to the inner ear, for instance in people with conductive or mixed hearing loss.
Learning to hear again
A cochlear implant (CI) enables deaf and hearing-impaired people to hear again. But the perception is different from hearing with healthy ears – especially directly after the operation when tones can sound tinny or echoey. It is rare that people immediately understand single words as the brain has to adapt to the new way of hearing first. That’s why auditory training is so important – afterwards, CI users have regular sessions to help them learn how to use their devices. The brain adapts to the new situation and with time hearing improves. Then listening to music, telephone conversations and discussions become part of day-to-day life, just like brushing teeth and getting dressed.