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Gainesville inventor's hearing aid could bring revolution

Special to The Times

When J.T. King returned to his native Gainesville with his wife, Barbara, in September 2003, he never dreamed he would become an inventor who might revolutionize an industry.

After a long career in the music industry, King took a sabbatical to serve as a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators, one of the largest faith missions with more than 6,000 missionaries worldwide.

He had been a senior engineer with Crown International, a leading manufacturer of amplifiers used by musical groups throughout the world. Instead of going back to the music business after his sabbatical, he and Barbara decided to return to Gainesville.

Longtime Hall County residents may remember his grandparents, Clyde R. and Dodie Franklin, who with his mother, Joyce Wheeler, raised him.

Clyde Franklin was the longtime manager of the old Gallant-Belk store, when it was located on the downtown square. Stalwarts at Central Baptist Church, Dodie Franklin was the church organist for 55 years and still lives in Gainesville.

Besides managing the Belk store, Clyde Franklin was responsible for recruiting a number of doctors to Gainesville on behalf of the old Downey Hospital, which evolved into Hall County Hospital and eventually Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Now King himself may become nationally renown as the inventor of a product that may be destined to revolutionize the hearing aid industry, and Gainesville is its home.

The unanticipated journey into inventions began soon after Barbara King first was fitted with a hearing aid. She purchased a leading brand, but was frustrated with what she learned was a problem inherent with virtually all hearing aids.

I can describe that problem best through my own personal experience.

More than a year ago, I was fitted with a leading brand of hearing aid. I quickly became frustrated because it magnified all sounds, without discrimination. An industry improvement was "noise canceling" microphones, which don't really cancel noise, but redirect it. The problem with this improvement is that it magnifies conversation off to the side more than in front.

I'd walk into a busy restaurant, and the overall chatter was the dominant sound. It was magnified, drowning out my companions' conversation.

It was frustrating for all of us. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of the many hearing aid users I've talked with who have not experienced this same problem.

My introduction to enhanced hearing began on a trip with friends Jim and Vicki Wilhoite. Our group was in a busy, music-filled Italian restaurant and the Wilhoites were sitting across from us.

I was having my usual problem as we attempted to converse when Jim Wilhoite asked, "You wear hearing aids, don't you?"

He said he had something that might solve that problem. He invited me to test new technology hearing aids, compare them to the ones I was wearing and detail everything. There would be no obligation on my part.

That was too good a deal to turn down for a cheapskate like me, who wouldn't want to be obligated to buy a new setunless it did a much better job.

It did, and I bought the aids for much less than the premium brand I had been wearing.

It turned out that a local company, Applied Systems Development Company, or ASDC, had been formed by Jim Squires and expanded by a small group of local investors to manufacture and market a new type of hearing aid using an advanced 3-D microphone technology.

The technology was invented by J.T. King, who tried to use his music industry experience to solve his wife's hearing frustrations.

When the new technology worked beyond all expectations, he realized its potential and retained a patent attorney to protect his invention. He then sought investors to finance a company to develop, manufacture and market the new aid.

Jim Wilhoite had been elected chairman of the board of directors for this new company.

The directors put together an experienced core management team to provide a less expensive but superior performance aid that lets those who need hearing aids hear "the natural way," with the 3-D type microphone.

Bill Wise, a retired Navy commander and the former chief financial officer for the late Larry Burkett's Christian Financial Concepts, based in Gainesville, was named chief executive officer.

Tim Pepper, a 20-year veteran of the hearing industry, was named vice president for production and operations.

King became vice president for engineering and product development. Richard Ford became vice president for sales and marketing, but also uses his expertise in other areas. Formerly a design engineer in the automotive industry, he designed the initial mold for the new hearing aid.

His patent pending, King researched ways to expand the practical use of the new technology while the others got the hearing aid ready for market. Several models of the aid have been developed and tested, all of which can have customized features. Besides using a few individuals as guinea pigs, they had licensed audiologists conduct case studies on clients who had the most difficult hearing problems.

These tests revealed that for some people needing hearing assistance, the aids produced no more than minimal improvement. More positively, a majority found, as I did, significant hearing quality improvement.

Despite owning far more expensive aids, many switched to the new aid. Others say they plan to switch after their existing aids need to be replaced.

Exactly how did hearing improve?

This new aid, named "Ambit," has one to four channels, depending upon which model is chosen. The basic channel on all models magnifies sound like the leading brand aids, including the set I have owned for more than a year.

With an Ambit multichannel aid, when I entered a restaurant or other noisy atmosphere, I depressed a switch to change channels. The chatter I heard was subdued and I was able to hear and understand my companions as well as I did before hearing loss.

This is the "natural way" of hearing King managed to technologically incorporate into the Ambit aids.

King explained how it was achieved.

The human eardrum by design normally gets only part of the sound waves because of the ear canal. It gets only what is called 'incident sound waves.'

"The 3D microphone used in the Ambit aid hears just like the human ear, picking up only the incident waves. As a result, most hearing impaired people can hear almost normally."

With the technology legally protected from unlicensed usage, Wise said the management team is focused on deciding on and implementing the best marketing strategy to a national scale.

Still in its infancy, J.T. King's invention resulting from trying to relieve his wife's hearing frustration could revolutionize the entire hearing aid industry, starting right here in Hall.

It's a long road from his days as a stockboy in the old Belk store his grandfather managed.

Ted Oglesby is retired editor of The Times opinion page. He can be reached at P.O. Box 663, Gainesville, GA 30503.

Originally published Tuesday, October 19, 2004


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