UNH professor connects math with wonders of digital world
DURHAM — Kevin Short's career does not exactly sum up what you would think of when you hear “mathematics.”
The University of New Hampshire professor and Durham father of four is a Grammy Award winner, could be responsible for the country's first smartphone app, is responsible for the first startup company to come out of UNH, and is now using math to improve hearing aids so that people actually want to use them.
The perspective and creativity with which Short applies math to real-life problems also appeals to his students, whether it is an 8 a.m. calculus class, or a late-night seminar with graduate students.
Short's first business was Chaoticom, which is now Groove Mobile. Short said that, in essence, Groove offered the first music download system to cell phones in the United States and were the operators behind the Sprint music store.
“So even though you saw ads on television that made it look like Sprint was doing it, it was actually us running it in the background,” Short said. “You could say that we created the first smartphone app.”
He said Groove installed the system over the air on cell phones and made it work on things that predated cell phones.
And it all grew out of a student project at UNH.
“Ultimately, everything in our digital media world has a mathematical underlying layer,” Short said.
It's ironic, Short says, when students say they do not like math, but they do like video games. In one of his sophomore-level algebra classes he teaches students how to make crude animations through math.
“I like students to understand how close their courses are getting them to real-world applications,” Short said. “A lot of times students sit in a classroom and don't realize how close they are to applications or even the cutting edge sometimes. Whenever I can, I say, 'Step over here and see what you can do with this.' ”
Short's desire for understanding is what led him to work with a 1949 bootleg Woody Guthrie recording produced more than 60 years ago on a wire recorder, which Short said only had about a three-year heyday at the end of World War II. He said Woody Guthrie sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher in the recordings.
But using precise math, he was able to reverse the sound to how it should have sounded and saved the historic recording, which is what earned him the Grammy.
He studied at the Imperial College of Science and Technology MIT in England, doing PhD research on string theory. Upon returning to the United States, he got a job with a defense contractor, but wanted to get involved with new technologies. That is when he started looking at signals, and began breaking down secure chaotic communications.
“It was just one continuum of finding cooler, harder problems and seeing if I could understand them,” Short said.
Short has been with UNH for the last 18 years and lives in Durham with his wife and four children, ages 13 to 20.
His most recent startup is a company called Setem Technologies, which he founded with Anthony Cirurgiao in November.
The goal is to help improve the quality of sound supplied by hearing aids, which Short said is something hearing aid wearers often complain about.
“They may be able to understand, but it sounds unnatural and makes it very tiring to listen to. So we hope we can overcome that hurdle and make it that people really want to use their hearing aids,” Short said.
Using precise math, Short has helped determine a way to lift the sounds people want to hear, like someone talking directly to them, and minimize the background noise.
“We have developed a technology that will identify the signal of interest and can lift it out and boost it and take the background and make it quiet,” Short said.
It's just another audio project for a math professor with a Grammy award.
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