For the first time an academic research laboratory has been honored with the Safe-in-Sound Innovation Award in Hearing Conversation, one of the top national awards in hearing conservation, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Hearing Conservation Association.

The honor recognizes the Auditory Systems Laboratory’s work, directed by John Casali, Grado Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech, in evaluating how well on-ear products provide “auditory situation awareness” — a state of knowledge about the presence, identification, and location of important sounds in one's environment — while providing protection as needed from hazardous noise.

“The work of the Auditory Systems Laboratory [at Virginia Tech] is unique in that it combines human factors engineering with acoustics and audiology to solve research questions in many aspects of auditory perception and hearing health,” said John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “The ultimate beneficiaries of this work are primarily military personnel but also workers in jobs which impose hazards that stem from not being able to hear important signals and communications.”

On an two-year federal research contract, Casali and Kichol Lee, research assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering, developed a comprehensive, objective test battery for the U.S. Department of Defense's Hearing Center of Excellence to enable formal evaluation of advanced hearing protection devices (HPDs) and tactical communications and protective systems (TCAPS).

The test battery — called DRILCOM, for Detection, Recognition/Identification, Localization, and Communications — enables definitive evaluation of military HPDs and TCAPS before they are selected and deployed on soldiers. The effects of such devices on the soldier's ability to hear, perceive and respond to important sounds is critical because compromised auditory situation awareness can lead to injury, death, and tactical failures.

Specifically, the test battery, using a variety of military-relevant human subject listening tests, determines how HPDs and TCAPS impact a soldier’s auditory situation awareness by presenting them with nonverbal signals, including "threat" signatures such as weapons cocking and sniper fire, as well as communications messages.

The test subjects are asked to respond as rapidly and accurately as possible to the stimuli and their responses while wearing the devices, are then compared to their open ear performance. The tests are unique to the lab and are controlled by a custom-made software and audio hardware system in a special echo-free room.

Casali's acceptance speech details the problem of auditory situation awareness and the DRILCOM test.