23 November 2016

Australians of a certain age may remember Carolyn Mee from Simon Townsend’s Wonder World, where three decades ago she worked as presenter. For today’s younger Australians however, many may come to admire her as the woman behind the app that spared them hearing-related learning difficulties.

“After being on air I moved to working behind the scenes in television,” Mee explains. “Twelve years ago I set up a production company, cmee4 Productions.”

“I produced a lot of medical content for organisations like the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Then six years ago I did a diploma in multiplatform screen producing and became interested in developing games. Given my client list, I was particularly interested in ‘serious games’.

“That is, games that are not only fun but which capture useful data. That was the jumping-off point for what became Sound Scouts, a game which tests children’s hearing.”

The game that also screens

Australian children have their hearing tested shortly after birth but not again. Unless, that is, a parent or GP suspects something is wrong and schedules a hearing test with an audiologist. However, particularly in remote locations, there may not be an audiologist readily available.

Enter Sound Scouts, a game involving a bionic-eared dog that has to find a lost park ranger. The app can be downloaded for free but to have your child play the game, and unknowingly undergo a hearing test, you pay $14.99.

Mee argues she’s making the existing hearing test industry more efficient rather than disrupting it. “The game serves as a screening device; potentially a mass screening device in the years to come,” she says. “If it reveals there is a hearing issue, the next step is a conventional hearing test conducted by an audiologist.”

Funding assistance to help children

To develop the game Mee worked with Dr Harvey Dillon. Dr Dillon is Director of the National Acoustics Laboratories, which is part of a hearing technology hub near Sydney’s Macquarie University.

Mee went to Dr Dillon with the concept for a hearing test game. They then spent years developing it and conducting clinical trials. External funding came in the form of a couple of grants: the NSW Government’s Digital Media Initiative helped get the ball rolling by putting $45,000 towards building a prototype, and NSW’s Health’s Medical Devices Fund subsequently provided $1.1 million.

“I’ve got children who’ve had learning difficulties. I’ve seen the heartbreaking impact that has on a child’s self-esteem. So the prospect of saving kids from hearing-related learning difficulties was pretty motivating,” Mee says.

App launch sees national interest

In February Sound Scouts was released on Apple iTunes and Google Play . It’s still early days but the interest shown so far has been encouraging.

“People from all over the country have been downloading it, which is fantastic to see,” says Mee. “We’re in talks about running a commercial trial with one local health district. There’s the potential for lots more to come on board, especially after the trial. If organisations are buying in bulk, we’re then in a position to offer our gamified hearing test at less than $10 a pop.

“At some point, the Federal Government may recognise that the return on picking up hearing difficulties early justifies a Medicare subsidy. Then parents may be able to have their children tested without being out of pocket at all. There’s currently a situation in Australia where children have their sight tested before starting school but not their hearing.”

Global goals now on horizon

At this point, you may be thinking Sound Scouts seems like the type of product that could be scaled globally – not to mention tweaked to catch hearing issues at the other end of the age range.

Mee is way ahead of you.

“Though it’s designed for five-year-olds, there’s no reason older people can’t use Sound Scouts to check their hearing,” Mee says. “That said, we are now creating a game with a more mature aesthetic and plot line to target adults.”

While Mee may not have been motivated by the prospect of vast riches when developing Sound Scouts, massive overseas markets mean her good works may come to be amply rewarded.

“We’re in discussions internationally,” Mee says. “Getting into China, where there’s a severe shortage of audiologists and 17 million children starting school every year, would be a game changer. As far as I’m aware, nobody else has yet developed a clinically proven and sophisticated gamified hearing test. So cmee4 Productions could just be the business that corners the global market in providing affordable, accessible, gamified hearing screening.”

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