BreakThrough Interview

Proposing a new solution to the societal problem of hearingUNIVERSAL SOUND DESIGN Inc.

<Series 1 (Total 2 series)>

2019.09.19

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Launched in 2013, “comuoon” is a "dialogue support device" that solves the “problem of hearing” by improving the sound quality of the speaker's voice, taking the approach of supporting hearing-impaired persons by adjusting what is spoken rather than what is heard. The product has won numerous awards, including the Tokyo Venture Technology Award, the Good Design Award, and the International Association of Universal Design's IAUD Award. It is already widely used in hospitals, nursing homes, public facilities such as city halls, and at bank counters. How was the necessary added value created? We will try to get to the bottom of that question in a two-part interview with developer Shinichiro Nakaishi, President of Universal Sound Design Inc.


Unexpected results triggered the idea

Mr. Nakaishi got the idea for “comuoon” in 2010 when he was planning a new speaker product at his previous record company.

"The impetus was when a hearing-impaired person heard the sound from a speaker developed by Professor Yoshiyasu Takefuji of Keio University that projects sound far. They made an off-hand remark that it was easy to hear. This made me consider whether a speaker could be developed that even people with hearing loss would find easy to listen to. So I consulted with the company I worked for at the time and secured a development budget."

Later, with the permission of Professor Takefuji, he made a prototype, and while listening to the impressions of trial users at hospitals and nursing homes, he arrived at the hypothesis that people with hearing loss might be sensitive to "sound quality."

“And we confirmed that increasing the sound resolution to produce clearer sound is better than just stressing the high frequency range that hearing-impaired persons apparently struggle to hear. That revealed the connection between hearing and sound quality. But just then the company ordered us to stop considering commercialization."

The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred at the same time. Mr. Nakaishi is driven by the fact that the mortality rate of the hearing impaired was almost twice that of healthy people, among other tragic circumstances.

“I realized the urgency of the research that we had been pursuing. I directly negotiated with the company asking them to let me do it myself if the company wasn't going to do it. I started by launching an NPO for R&D at my own expense."

Graph comparing the sound quality of normal speakers with "comuoon"

Team building is important in manufacturing

Why was Mr. Nakaishi, who was originally neither an engineer nor a researcher, able to leave his company and continue developing the speaker alone? The key factors were the design knowledge that he learned as a student, the project management skills he later learned at a major construction company he worked for, and his exceptional energy.

“I think that manufacturing is essentially team building. “Comuoon” originates from the collective efforts of many people, including product designers, engineers in charge of mechanism and electrical circuits, and those in charge of manufacturing each part. First, I made drawings by myself and increased the number of collaborators, arguing for the type of product needed to solve the problem of hearing.”

Although an acquaintance was the product designer and Professor Takefuji introduced him to a company that specializes in circuit design, the rest of the team building started from scratch. Based on information on the Internet, he considered manufacturing partners for speakers and microphones, and asked them one by one to collaborate. He met a terminal manufacturer at an exhibition in Tokyo that he participated in himself.

 

Learning passionately while encouraging information sharing across professional team members

In managing the team and pursuing development, Mr. Nakaishi's self-study and commitment became a major force.

“Manufacturing often involves leaving outsourced parts to others. However, personally I like to study and be a part of each process. If you acquire all of the knowledge, you will be able to manage the project with precision like a conductor. I considered it my job to encourage information sharing across different parts of the team, each of which has their own expertise."

Development progressed thanks to Mr. Nakaishi's ability to make adjustments. He has been called a "deep generalist." Occasionally, Mr. Nakaishi's high demands led to friction in the team, but it evaporated when we saw the joy of users.

“When we organized the first hearing trial for hearing-impaired persons, both the team members involved in the development and the people involved in the meeting had their doubts. That's when hearing-impaired persons who heard the sound from the prototype said they could hear and shed tears of joy one after another.”

This also happened at a hearing trial for hearing-impaired children.

“I had a father talk to his child through the prototype. The child suddenly started crying. When asked what was wrong, he answered that it was the first time he had heard his dad's voice without a hearing aid. These hearing trials reminded our development team how wonderful and beautiful it is that we can hear, which we take for granted. That gave our team a big motivation boost."

Finally, in December 2013 “comuoon” was completed after continuous improvements based on various direct feedback. It will be used in a variety of social situations.


Series "Approaching a challenge reveals new value"

Series 1:Proposing a new solution to the societal problem of hearing
Series 2:Approaching a challenge reveals new value


Company overview

Universal Sound Design Inc.

CEO Shinichiro Nakaishi

After graduating from the Architecture Department of Kumamoto YMCA College, Mr. Shinichiro Nakaishi was involved in building construction management. After attending the Digital Hollywood University, he helped launch corporate websites as a web director and project manager. In 2012 he founded the company together with his father. The company develops, manufactures, and sells the dialogue support speaker “comuoon” that supports hearing by adjusting what is spoken, and has developed various services that help solve the problem of hearing.

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