OTOjOY’s Man of Many Hats

Thomas Kaufmann

When Thomas Kaufmann walks into a room, he is hard to miss. Regardless of where he goes, he never fails to sport a beret, top hat or at times a hard hat and has lovingly become known as a man of many hats. However, the “hat” that made him into a Santa Barbara community icon is not a hat at all, but his organization OTOjOY, which uses hearing loop technology to help individuals with hearing loss.

Originally from Germany, Kaufmann first came to Santa Barbara for an internship in 2010. With a background in physics and patent law, he was recruited by UCSB to pursue a PhD in Chemistry. However, he soon found himself itching for another challenge. He had an interest in preserving hearing due to his passion for music and entertainment and began exploring the field of hearing loops, which he initially discovered while attending a marketing class at UCSB.

“A hearing loop is an assistive listening system that takes sound from a sound system and sends it directly and wirelessly to a listener’s hearing aid without reverberation, echo or background noise,” said Kaufmann. The only sound the listener hears is directly from the sound system, which makes it as though the speaker of a presentation is right inside the listener’s head.

Finding this technology fascinating, Kaufmann began OTOjOY to raise awareness about hearing loop technology and provide high-quality assistive learning services to “let people’s ears smile.” By the end of 2012, OTOjOY was experiencing such success that Kaufmann decided to leave graduate school with a Master of Science degree instead to further develop the company and began donating hearing loops to local organizations, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Hearing Loop Fund, his fiscal sponsorship fund with the Santa Barbara Foundation, has allowed him to work as a charitable organization and receive donations from donors to leverage partnerships with the nonprofit sector. As a result, OTOjOY’s “Loop Santa Barbara” public awareness campaign has attracted attention from the media and independent givers and created a partnership of hearing loop installers, audiologists and hearing aid dispensers, as well as advocates in the Santa Barbara community.

“Within just three years, we have more than 80 community spaces in the area with loops where people have full and equal cognitive access to sound, including places of worship, city council chambers, libraries, and even the Arlington Theatre and the Santa Barbara Bowl,” says Kaufmann.

OTOjOY’s campaigns and advocacy networks are increasing across California through both nonprofit outreach and hearing loop donations to hearing professionals for the purpose of educating their patients. Kaufmann is also working with advocates nationwide through the Hearing Loss Association of America to explore expanding OTOjOY into other states, such as Texas and Arizona. However, Kaufmann has no intention to stop there and is continually innovating to provide more services to those with limited abilities, such as a product he created that allows people with hearing loss to plug special earphones into their smartphone to listen to music and programs through a hearing loop without the need for a hearing aid. The OTOjOY team is also working with IBM Watson to create an easier and more universal way to provide live captioning.

“Whatever we design, we should have people of all levels of ability in mind and create universal designs that allow access for everyone. For example, such universal designs will not hurt someone who is not in a wheelchair and, in the end, everyone benefits,” said Kaufmann. He continued, “My long-term vision is to create SENSOjOY, or a universal version of OTOjOY, that will make venues and public spaces fully accessible to everyone.” With that, it looks like Kaufmann will be trying on yet another hat.

For more information about OTOjOY or to get involved, visit otojoy.com or contact Jessica Sanchez, Donor Relations Officer for the Santa Barbara Foundation at jsanchez@sbfoundation.org or (805) 963-1873, ext. 366.

North County Headquarters:  (805) 346-6123  |   2625 S. Miller Street, Suite 101, Santa Maria, CA 93455
South County Headquarters:  (805) 963-1873  |  1111 Chapala Street, Suite 200, Santa Barbara, CA 93101