Thomas Lunner

Research Area Manager, Cognitive Hearing Science
Thomas' work in the 90s, led almost directly to the invention and launch of the "DigiFocus", the world's first mass-produced digital hearing aid. Today, he's leading the cognitive hearing science research area at Eriksholm Research Centre

What do you do at Eriksholm?

“I am a senior scientist and research area manager of Eriksholm’s Cognitive Hearing Science research team. Additionally, I work as a part-time professor at the University of Linköping.”

And you have worked here for how many years now?

“Since the early 90s. I was not officially recruited to Eriksholm until the year 2000, after many years of cooperation as a PhD student and post doc in Linköping.

I have to tell you what drove me to work in the field in the first place. When I was still in school, back in the early 1980s, there was a girl with one of those old analogue hearing aids, using an FM-system with a teacher microphone. Having never seen one before, we originally assumed she was carrying around a microphone for the audience, but we could never quite figure out who the audience was supposed to be. When I asked her, she told me about her hearing impairment and the burden it put on her life. That really drove me towards making a difference for people with these kinds of limitations. I actually began studying engineering so I would be able to one day make the digital hearing aid I dreamt of offering that little girl with the microphone. The studies were in Linköping and luckily I met Professor Stig Arlinger, and a study-colleague of mine, Johan Hellgren with whom we invented the fundamentals that empowered us to develop the first digital hearing aid. In 1995 Oticon released the world’s first mass-produced digital hearing aid, based on our inventions. It was called the “DigiFocus.” Shortly after, I was called down to Eriksholm Research Centre to discuss future cooperation, and I have been working here ever since.”

Tell us about some of the projects and studies you have participated in.

“I have been involved in a number of both larger and smaller projects, starting with our work on DigiFocus. When we brought the idea of a digital hearing aid to Oticon, we worked in collaboration with their engineers to design and develop the chip that would be necessary to carry our technology.

For the past 20 years I have worked on connecting hearing with cognition. I was part of establishing the new research area Cognitive Hearing Science, in collaboration with researchers from Linköping University and Toronto University. I am currently a part time professor in Cognitive Hearing Science in Linköping. Furthermore, at Eriksholm, I have established the strategic research area Cognitive Hearing Science, now with eight members in the team.

In an early project, I showed a strong connection between working memory and speech in noise for the hearing impaired. A result that many researchers have now replicated.

More recently I have worked on developing cognitive methods for assessment of hearing aid signal processing where conventional speech in noise tests are insensitive, that is at high signal to noise ratios and high performance levels. We have, in collaboration with Linköping University, shown that aggressive noise reduction can improve memory for the hearing impaired. Most recently we have also worked with pupillometry in collaboration with VUMC Amsterdam where we have verified pupillometry as an objective means of documenting listening effort. Very excitingly, we have been able to show lower listening effort by means of pupillometry, most lately with the Oticon Opn.

However, maybe the most exciting project right now is a large EU funded project under Horizon 2020 called COCOHA (Cognitive Control of a Hearing Aid. In this project we place electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes directly on the hearing aid to measure brain waves. The brain waves are researched to be used to control the hearing aid signal processing by the user’s own will. The aim of the project is to make a hearing aid that only amplifies the sounds that the user wants to attend.”

What do you like the most about working at Eriksholm Research Centre?

“Well, apart from having a wonderful team of colleagues to work with every day, I like the real-life impact that Eriksholm offers its researchers. Our work serves a very clear purpose already going into it, and I get to see my work utilized to improve the quality of life for people with hearing loss. A good example is going back to DigiFocus; some of the technology we developed then, is still being used in digital hearing aids today. Every single day, our work have a lasting impact on people’s lives.” 

What are the three most important values in your life? 

  1. “Humility – As a scientist, you have to be prepared to fail. For every groundbreaking piece of research, there are numerous failures that taught us nothing new. This is something you only experience in very few industries, and it is something you absolutely need to be prepared for.
  2. Confidence – Conversely, any scientist who walks into a project expecting to fail, will do so. You have to believe in the work you do, and the reasons for doing it. You have to be confident that you are onto something, if you want to keep pursuing it.
  3. Resilience – When the inevitable happens, and a project or an experiment fails, not only do you need to be humble in your downfall, you also cannot let it get you on your back. You have to get back up, and be prepared for whatever project comes next.”

What do you hope will happen in future science? 

“I hope we will figure out a way to give a more real, life-like experience to the many hearing aid users in the world, and that we will be able to provide them opportunities to hear as well as the rest of us, among other things using what we have learned through pupillometry and cognitive hearing science. For example in the way, that the direction you look in can help your hearing aid determine what to focus on and what to filter out.”

What is the most exciting scientific breakthrough in your life time?

“I have to go back to the DigiFocus again. The very first digital hearing aid changed the game entirely. Even today, we still utilize some of the technologies we brought around back in 1995. It truly was an exciting time, and it is equally exciting to see how we have continued to bring the technology in many more directions. But, the most exciting is still to come. I believe it will be in cognitive hearing science.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“I don’t have much spare time, but in the time there is, I do a lot of different things. Together with my brother and my oldest son, I work with a small start-up company in Sweden. We have actually had a few contracts with teams in the NHL, for example. We use algorithms to analyze and calculate various hockey team and player stats. I am also part of a team working to provide a more efficient way for farmers to sort their grain. Our machine can sort individual grains at incredible speeds, much faster than other methods so far.

When I am not working on something, I like to spend time with my family. All of us: my wife and my two adult sons love downhill skiing. We try to go on ski vacation once every winter. Nowadays, it’s also a great time of reunion of the family, since both our sons have moved out of home.

Bicycling has also become a favorite exercise. It actually started with my commuting from Helsingborg to Eriksholm. The best – and quickest – way to commute is by bike, and to bring the bike on the ferry. After one year I had biked so much between my home and Eriksholm that I decided to participate in the 300 kilometres long “Vättern runt” bikerace in Sweden. It became a tradition, often together with collegues from Oticon. This summer I will do the race for the fourteenth time.”

Thank you, Thomas.

Thomas has a number of publications in various research papers. You can find more about him here, about his personal qualifications here, and about his full list of publications.