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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

LAS VEGAS - Mead Killion, chief technology officer and audiologist at Etymotic Research, Inc., gestured to a picture of a dozen camouflage-clad young men.

"One third of this squad will come back with hearing loss," Killion said.

He then showed off the device his company makes that he hopes will prevent that deafness. No larger than vitamin pills, the EB15 earplugs aim to revolutionize ear protection by blocking out loud, potentially deafening noises such as explosions, while still allowing users to hear softer sounds such as orders from an officer or the rustle of an approaching enemy.

The earplugs work somewhat like hearing aids, in that they record external sounds with tiny microphones, and then replay them directly into the ear at a different volume. However, unlike a hearing aid, the EB15 lowers, not amplifies, the sound. In fact, the EB15 earplugs soften sounds by as much as 15 decibels. That increases the time of safe exposure by a factor of 32, Killion said, enough to make the earplugs useful for anyone who works in a high-sound environment, be they soldiers, construction workers or music venue employees.

The EB15 "will act like ear plugs around a Humvee, like an open ear for speech, and a loud explosion just sounds like a pop," Killion told TechNewsDaily. "It's as good as an open ear for detecting speech and soft noises like gun cocking."

Etymotic designed the EB15 to fill a gap in the military's hearing protection regime. Currently, soldiers either use regular ear plugs, which block out sounds they need to hear, like communications with other soldiers, or electronic dampening headphones that make it hard to find where a sound originated from. Because of these limitations, many soldiers don't wear any hearing protection at all.

"They have earplugs, but they don't wear them," Killion said. "They need to hear the enemy and each other, and the earplugs interfere with their situational awareness."

Of course, soldiers aren't the only group of people who are exposed to loud noises for long periods of time. To optimize performance for a wide range of jobs, Etymotic featured two different lines of earplugs at CES 2011. One kind protects better against very loud, intermittent sounds such as gunfire, and another model works better with loud, continuous noise, such as the roar experienced by airport workers on the runway or construction workers operating heavy machinery.

The EB15 earplugs are already available for purchase, and retail for $499.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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