Geoffrey Ball is the inventor of the VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE — and a SOUNDBRIDGE recipient himself. He developed his hearing loss at an early age, and to him the solution was obvious: he needed to build a device that worked with what little hearing he had left.
MED-EL Blog: Thanks for sitting down with us, Geoffrey. Could you start by sharing a little bit about you, your background and experience?
Geoff Ball: I’m from Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. After graduating with a Bachelors’ in Physiology and a Masters’ in Information Technology, I was hired immediately out of school as a biomedical engineer at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I ran the lab for seven years, and at the same time also did a lot of consulting work with medical device and electronics companies.
MB: Could you tell us a bit about your hearing loss?
GB: I became deaf after a series of high fevers and illnesses that I experienced between the ages of 3‑4 years old. Part of treating the fevers was an injection of an antibiotic, most likely Gentamicin, which back in those days was not known to cause deafness but which we now know to be ototoxic. Now likely because of that I have a -80 dB sensorineural deafness, which means I can hear extremely loud sounds such as car horns but I cannot hear much else without amplification.
The audiologists in the USA call my type of hearing loss “moderately severe hearing loss,” but that has always made me a bit crazy. I always think to myself, “There is just nothing ‘moderate’ about being unable to hear. Period.”
MB: What sorts of treatments were available for your hearing loss?
GB: When I was a child, the only option was an acoustic hearing aid. But until the mid-1980s, hearing aids were truly terrible devices. All they did was blast the user’s ear with distorted sounds and feedback. They made all sounds louder, to be fair, but that was the problem; hearing aids made all sounds louder, but they made nothing clearer.
It was around 1978 when I first read about cochlear implants. I somehow knew right then that someday I would get an implant. This was just what I wanted, and even though I had no idea what I was thinking about at the time, to me it just made sense that I should go to the doctor and he should do a surgery and “fix” my hearing with an implant.
I think I first asked at the California Ear Institute for an implant around 1980, and was told that they were “still working on it” but in a year or two should have something for me. Well, it turns out that it took a lot longer than that. I would have to wait another 18 years before I would get my implant.
MB: Why did you want to develop a new type of hearing implant?
GB: I used to work directly across the hall from the Ophthalmology department at Stanford, and I saw that if someone has a vision problem they have so many different treatment options. But with deafness, at the time, the answer was pretty much the same: “Here is your hearing aid.” And if you said, “Well I do not like hearing aids,” their answer would be “Ok, well here is another kind of hearing aid.” So for many years the answer was a hearing aid, or nothing.
When cochlear implants first arrived, at least for once there was hope. Even for those of us who were not good candidates for electrical stimulation, an implant had arrived and surely there would be more to come.
I can recall when I first started working at Stanford, the department head said to me, “Yes! Now Geoff, what we are going to do is get the hearing implant device done, then in one or two years we will implant you, and then we will get you into medical school here.” Well, it took a lot longer than one or two years, I never made my way back into medical school, and I have been working on medical devices and hearing implants ever since.
MB: How did you actually go about developing a middle-ear implant?
GB: Oh, that was simple! I just spent seven or eight years of my life stuck in windowless labs at Stanford, working many late nights and weekends, testing ears, building new test systems, and trying hundreds of devices that didn’t work or had major design flaws. But I knew the key was in amplifying sound waves, unlike the electrical signals that a cochlear implant sends.
So then, late one night, I was working in a lab out in my garage and making micro transducers—little devices which convert electricity into vibration. And as I was working there I discovered the key to my hearing implant: the Floating Mass Transducer, or FMT. It could be connected to the Ossicles, the middle ear bones, and create sound vibrations loud enough to be heard.
MB: What is it like to have invented the implant that enables you to hear?
GB: I was implanted with one of the first clinical trial units, which meant that it was only supposed to be for the clinical trial. The fact that it is still working, and has worked so well for so many years, is amazing.
When I had my implantation I heard with my own device, in my own head, for the first time. Yeah, it was very cool. I have to admit it. And every now and then when I switch my implants on, and can hear, I think to myself, “Wow. That is really awesome.”
It is humbling to me because I know how much hard trial-and-error effort went into it, and I am happy to be part of it. And I mean only one part of it, because there have been hundreds of researchers, doctors, business experts, regulatory specialists, and clinical support staff who have made this happen. No one person could ever have done it all.
MB: You received your second SOUNDBRIDGE in 2015. Why did you wait so long?
GB: It’s because the newest SOUNDBRIDGE implant has some new improvements that I wanted to try out. One is that it is now “MR conditional,” which is regulatory language meaning it can go through 1.5 Tesla MRI. And we also invented a newer attachment method, where the FMT connects to my middle ear bones, and I really wanted to hear how it compared to the other method.
Geoff Ball’s autobiography, “No More Laughing at the Deaf Boy”, released in 2011, shares his adventure in technology leading him from Silicon Valley in California to Austria, where he now lives and continues his work with MED-EL.
Want to hear more from Geoff? Check out this video of him explaining—and receiving—the newest SOUNDBRIDGE implant that he helped develop.