A few days ago I stumbled upon a Forbes article about 4 game-changing technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing. I read it with interest, as I keep rubbing shoulders with the tech/startup world, and the moment it intersects with hearing technology, I immediately wonder what the technological future for hearing-impaired people like me might look like (remember my excitement about mimi?)
Without being an expert on either innovation or the hearing aid industry, here’s what I see when I look around. There are startups, like mimi, who approach issues from original angles, and clearly try to disrupt the market. But big companies innovate too.
Over the last year or two, for example, we’ve heard a lot about Made for iPhone hearing aids, that will connect directly to your iPhone without a streamer (there’s a price though, not least a battery life of 2-3 days).
Also featured in Yahoo News’s game-changing wearable devices, Phonak’s Roger Pen, a versatile device that makes hearing in difficult situations much easier. I have yet to test it (soon, hopefully!) but I know a bunch of deaf students who swear by it. Less conducive to attention-grabbing headlines than “bluetooth hearing aids”, but maybe more important, there is also Venture, the new platform for Phonak aids. This can seem “softer” innovation, as it is “the next version” (after Quest, which I also tried), but if it is so good you fall asleep with your hearing aids on and forget to use your programmes, isn’t that quite incredible? Not to forget Lyric, a truly invisible hearing aid that you wear 24/7 and change every few months.
Anyway. Back to the article that got me writing today, and the players it showcases, along with my somewhat skeptical comments.
We have MotionSavvy, a tablet and software that translate sign language into spoken language in real time. This sounds really exciting, but can it really bridge the deaf and hearing worlds? I don’t sign, so I’m not certain of the implications of carrying a tablet around and signing with one hand. Also, I know that facial expression is an important part of sign language — will MotionSavvy manage that? I’d be interested in feedback from people who use sign primarily to communicate on how “real-life-useful” this seems to them. From the technology point of view it’s clearly exciting, though. (Update: two MotionSavvy founders + other employees are deaf, so I’m reducing my skepticism a few notches and increasing my enthusiasm about the project — “scratch your own itch” is always a selling-point for me.)
Then there is Solar Ear, which is about getting solar-rechargeable batteries in hearing aids for developing countries. We’ve written a few posts here about the Hear Haiti Project, and I’m certain that in addition to hearing aids the volunteers with the Hear the World Foundation must be bringing many many packs of batteries with them in their luggage. So, clearly, batteries that can be recharged with solar power sound like a great advance. However, there are reasons we’re not already widely using rechargeable batteries in hearing aids. This is above my pay-grade, but I did peek at their specs for the 312 battery (those I use), and I see it’s Ni-MH, which I read in the other article suffers from issues like the memory effect and capacity fading. Have they found a way around this, or do they simply design a hearing aid that can deal with these issues?
Third, ISEEWHATYOUSAY (video). This is a speech-to-text device. You speak a message into your end, and the message appears typed on the other person’s device. This is the less convincing one for me, because I don’t see how it is very different than dictating a text message into your phone for the other person.
Last but not least, in the vein of pimping your hearing aids, Hayleigh’s Cherished Charms. Hayleigh started drawing hearing-aid jewellery when she was little to encourage her classmates to stop hiding their hearing aids behind their hair. Now 16, Heyleigh runs a proper business selling her charms, complete with Etsy store!