Boy’s hearing transformed by hi-tech headphones

Thomas Robertshaw, who was born with microtia but is now able to hear stereo sound. Picture ' Scott Merrylees
Thomas Robertshaw, who was born with microtia but is now able to hear stereo sound. Picture ' Scott Merrylees

A teenager from Boroughbridge born with one ear has heard sounds in stereo for the first time thanks to a new hi-tech device transmitting sounds through his skull.

Thomas Robertshaw, 14, has microtia, which means the outer part of his left ear has not formed correctly, allowing him to hear only through his right ear.

He had never heard stereo sound or surround sound until last month when he wore a new gadget resting on his temporal bone just in front of his ears.

It harnesses the acoustic properties of the skull to transmit audio vibrations wirelessly directly to the inner ear.

The idea was originally developed for runners or cyclists to replace headphones, as by keeping ears clear it allows users to hear sounds around them as well as listen to music.

Now James Talbot, the boss of York-based technology firm Damson, who devised and developed Headbones which uses Bluetooth technology, believes it could also have benefits for people with hearing problems.

This includes the elderly when they are listening to the television, radio or using their telephone.

Mr Talbot was present when Thomas, a pupil at Boroughbridge High School, used the device for the first time.

The youngster said it had made a big difference to him.

“It was really good because I’ve never heard stereo sound before. I could hear through the other side of my head,” he said.

His stepfather, Stuart Winder, 40, who admits to being a “tech and gadget freak”, had come across the new device on the internet.

He contacted Mr Talbot and discovered that despite the worldwide interest in the product, they only lived only seven miles away from each other and even shared the same butcher.

He said Thomas had only ever heard mono-sound but had never been fazed by his situation.

Mr Winder said it was “surreal” witnessing him hear using both ears for the first time.

“He’d not experienced it before,” he said.

“Even now wearing them for two weeks, he just goes ‘wow’.”

Mr Talbot said: “He gave us a very truthful teenage impression of the product and he thinks it’s fantastic. It was actually quite humbling to see it.

“It was not the intended use for the product but it means we can look at the medical benefits for people with hearing impairments.

“This is the huge benefit of our bone-conducting technology, as it means that listeners don’t actually hear with their ears but rather through vibrations.

“It could be used by people with general hearing problems who have the TV on at full blast, allowing them to listen to it at normal levels.

“I lived in London for 25 years and was staggered that people were running or cycling with headphones.

“Using this they can hear things around them.

“If it saves one person’s life by giving them time to take evasive action, the product has done it’s job.

“It’s illegal to wear headphones in a car but this way you can use hands-free kit on the phone and keep your ears open.”

He said prestigious London department store Selfridges had just informed the firm it intended to stock the product.

The teenager did have the option to have operations to open the ear canal up and fit a false ear. But both Thomas and his parents felt this would be too invasive, particularly as his speech had developed well despite the microtia.

The only other treatment was a bone conduction hearing aid which would have required an operation to permanently fit it to his skull and could require further treatment as his skull grew.