Protecting Your Voice: Innovative Wearable Device Detects Vocal Fatigue

02-03-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, medical researchers from Northwestern University have developed a wearable vocal sensor device that can detect vocal fatigue, a condition that can lead to long-term vocal damage if left unchecked. The device is capable of measuring changes in speech and voice to identify symptoms of fatigue, stress, and danger, allowing individuals who frequently use their voice, such as singers or speakers, to take preventative measures and avoid potential damage. What challenges does vocal fatigue introduce, what did the researchers demonstrate, and how could this be used to help prevent long-term damage?

What challenges does vocal fatigue introduce?

For anyone who has done public speaking, lecturing, or radio, vocal fatigue is a particularly annoying issue to face. The stress of speaking for long periods of time or having to make one’s voice louder can introduce significant pain in the vocal cords, chest, and even jaw. At the same time, the sound of one’s voice can also change significantly, which is particularly troublesome for those required to sing or act. 

But unlike a broken leg, the damage from vocal fatigue doesn’t make itself known immediately. In fact, it is perfectly possible to spend an entire evening talking only to feel the effects of vocal fatigue the following day. Worse, repeated vocal fatigue episodes can lead to damage and complications such as nodules, polyps, cysts, haemorrhage, and chronic laryngitis, all of which can be tricky to cure and cause permanent damage. 

Identifying if vocal fatigue has begun to set in is also difficult, as there are no clear signs. It is possible to take a break from using one’s voice once every so often, but unless physical pain can be felt, it is very easy to keep on talking. For those whose career is focused on their voice, this kind of damage can be detrimental, effectively eliminating their ability to continue working.

Researchers develop wearable device able to detect fatigue

Recently, researchers from Northwestern University published an article demonstrating a new wearable device capable of detecting vocal fatigue. The battery-powered device, which measures no larger than a postage stamp, is attached to the chest to detect vibrations. To prevent discomfort, the device has been designed to be soft and flexible, and the use of wireless data transmission eliminates the need for a flexible device.

A smartphone app is then used to wirelessly connect to the device, and the real-time data being streamed is analysed using algorithms. At the same time, machine algorithms are used to identify times of regular speech when vocal fatigue is absent and identify anomalies that may indicate potential vocal stress. Inside the app, users can set their own threshold levels, which, once crossed, inform the user to take a rest.

Currently, the device is trained to operate on a few researchers, but plans are being made to enable the device to work on anyone. New users will likely press a button on the app to train the sensor, and long-term use will improve its ability to detect vocal fatigue.

How can such devices be used to prevent long-term damage?

By detecting anomalies in medical data, such devices can prevent damage before it becomes a problem. Generally speaking, it is far cheaper and easy to prevent diseases and conditions in their earlier stages, meaning that medical monitoring devices would not only reduce complications but even save money for the medical industry. 

In the case of vocal fatigue, if the researchers can commercialise their design, millions worldwide who rely on their voice as a source of income could be provided with a mechanism to protect their careers. At the same time, such devices may also be able to detect long-term changes in voice, which can often indicate throat cancers, something that can be terminal if not caught early. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.