How About A Sport Hearing Aid?

I love thinking about new features for hearing aids. OK — I guess that makes me a little bit weird, but when something is such an important lifeline to communication, it is probably worth thinking about from time to time. A few months ago I wrote a blog post detailing some ideas I had for improving today’s hearing aids. These included:

  1. Have sound recognition: I’m not sure if that is a real term, but what I mean is that the hearing aid could be taught to identify the specific sounds or voices that are most important to you. For example, you could use a wand or app to record your family members’ voices, and the hearing aid would then know that these were critical sounds for you to hear. Right now most hearing aids are only programmable by frequency. Programming by “sound” could be much more accurate.
  2. Identify sounds to avoid: Part two of the sound recognition described above would allow you to teach your hearing aid sounds you want to avoid, like the sound of your air conditioner or refrigerator. This could help alleviate the issue of amplification of all sounds rather than just the important ones.
  3. Have a mute button: Wouldn’t it be nice to turn the sound off every once in a while without having to remove the aids?
  4. Send low battery alert emails: Even my Fitbit sends me an email, when the battery is running low, so it can’t be that hard. This way we could avoid the need to swap batteries on the fly or during an important meeting.
  5. Be directional: I would like to be able to adjust the hearing aid’s microphone to highlight sounds coming from a certain direction or area of the room. This would help in meetings and at restaurants. Ideally, this would be controlled through a wand or smartphone app.

Continue reading “How About A Sport Hearing Aid?”

Teen aims to make Californian city more hearing loss-friendly

Imagine a world where every newly constructed building would include accommodations for those with hearing loss, including acoustically-friendly designs, captioning and the latest hearing assistive technology.

While it seems like a lofty goal, one 16-year-old from California is encouraging his community to do just that.

Johnny Butchko knows too well what it’s like to not be able to understand people in public spaces.

“Every day that I am in school I have difficulty hearing in the halls, the cafeteria and the courtyards, because there is a lot of background noise,” he said.

Johnny was born severe-to-profoundly deaf. Equipped with Phonak Naida Q 50 UP hearing aids, he uses an FM system and captioning in the classroom, and a caption phone at home, but in public spaces, the feeling of being lost in translation is all too common.

So, he decided to do something about it.

Continue reading “Teen aims to make Californian city more hearing loss-friendly”

Participate in a Co-Creation Workshop to Design Future Hearing Aids

Have you ever wondered how hearing aids were designed? One step in the process is getting designers and hearing aid users together in a co-creation workshop. You can be a part of this.

At Phonak, the person who manages design of new products is Martyn. He works with the top design and innovation experts from around the world to create the hearing aids of the future: look and feel, colours, interaction — pretty much all that makes our hearing aids quasi an extension of ourselves, in addition to processing sound in a way that improves our daily lives.

I spent some time on the phone yesterday with Nataliya, an independent innovation consultant who is going to be running some of these co-creation workshops in New York as part of the design process for the next generation of hearing aids. Continue reading “Participate in a Co-Creation Workshop to Design Future Hearing Aids”

A Beautiful Ending

The end to every journey can be met with excitement or sadness: it’s all on how you look at it. The past year has flown by before my eyes. There were days when I was tired and thought that it was the longest day of the week, however the majority of time has left me saying to myself “where did the week go” by the time Friday came. So then how do I look at the end of my journey? I see it as an exciting time as well as a sad time.

The past year has been an experience that has made not only a professional impact but also a personal impact on me. As an audiologist, I have grown substantially. As I wrap up my time here at headquarters I feel as though I have gained the knowledge and experience of a 5 year time span. I recognize that the intensive 12 months behind me have challenged my educational foundation (in a good way) as well as required me to think ‘outside of the box’ by looking forward 5 years to the future generation of hearing aids and the people who will be wearing them.

This challenge has made the biggest impact. As you emerge from school with a fresh perspective you still remain closely focused on the present, the here and now. You look at each day and each patient regarding how they are getting along at that point in time. You never challenge yourself to think 5+ years ahead. Think of what the technology will be like, what hearing loss and medical intervention may be, as well as the average age and profile of the clients you will see. Can you wrap your head around it?

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The Future May Not Be All About Technology

The world we live in is bursting with new and exciting technology. As an audiologist I am astonished by the technological achievements that are implemented into today’s hearing aids, while other times I feel constricted and limited. How can this be? I can get into my car, connect to a “smart system”, browse my music and pictures, ask the system for directions by simply talking out loud; the possibilities are endless. Why then aren’t we farther along in hearing aid technology? Why isn’t there a proper “smart” hearing aid? Would we even want one if it existed?

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How Exponential Growth in Computing Power Will Bring About ‘Magical’ Hearing Aids

On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” recently was the story of a woman whose hearing problems were diagnosed at age 5, in 1993. She had moderate to severe loss of high- and low-frequency hearing, and got her first hearing aids — which were large and crude compared to today’s hearing-aid technology.

You can read or listen to the story here: “Hearing Aid Evolution Unveils What The World Sounds Like In ‘3-D’.”Music to the ear, notes flow into an ear

Continue reading “How Exponential Growth in Computing Power Will Bring About ‘Magical’ Hearing Aids”

Flaunt It Or Hide It? A Future Hearing-Aid Scenario

The hearing-impaired community is diverse, and certainly not of one mind. Such is obvious when it comes to the “debate” that surfaced on one of my Open Ears posts from April, about my personal desire to use hearing aids that are as “invisible” as possible.

Do you flaunt it or hide it?
Do you flaunt it or hide it when it comes to your hearing aids? (Photos by UMHealthSystem and Erik Holfelder)

There are plenty of hearing-impaired people who prefer to flaunt their hearing aids, not only as a way to make their devices a fashion statement — in the same way as most people who wear eyeglasses spend a lot of time selecting just the right, fashionable frames — but also to make a different kind of statement. One commenter on my April post nicely explained the “flaunt them” point of view:

Continue reading “Flaunt It Or Hide It? A Future Hearing-Aid Scenario”

Future Ears: What If You Could Have ‘Super Hearing’?

For most readers of this blog, the biggest concern is how to improve hearing that’s degraded over the years, or that’s been impaired since birth, or due to overexposure to loud noises, an accident or disease.

But in the not-too-distant future, the hearing-impaired community as well as those with normal hearing could also be thinking about adding “super hearing” abilities.

I’m not kidding. In research labs today are working prototypes of “bionic ears” that can far surpass the capabilities of even the healthiest human ear. It’s just a matter of time before we mere humans can be augmented with “cybernetic” technology that allows us to hear sounds that the human ear is not capable of discerning, or focus our hearing on a specific spot in order to hear, say, a conversation taking place a football-field’s length away, or even listen to radio frequencies (for a real-life voice in your head that only you can hear).

This is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy novels. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, either the books or the movies, you’ll recall Harry’s handy Extendible Ears. Popular culture also has brought us The Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors) of the 1970s TV series, and earlier this year, the remake of Robocop — both almost-dead people given new lives with technology replacing once-biological capabilities.

Blue Ear Deaf Superhero
New technologies and research are turning super-hearing fantasy into reality. (Illustration: ‘Blue Ear’ superhero concept by Marvel Comics)

There’s even the hearing-impaired Marvel Comics superhero, BlueEar, who was created by the media company at the request of a mother whose young hearing-impaired son didn’t want to wear his hearing aids. While BlueEar was limited to a poster and a marketing campaign to promote acceptance of hearing aids by young users, Marvel’s Hawkeye superhero actually did use hearing aids for part of his “career,” after losing much of his hearing during an epic battle with an archenemy.

But enough fantasy; back to reality. Check out the video below which shows how researchers at Princeton University were able to create an actual ear replacement using low-cost 3-D printing that interwove biological tissue with functional electronics.


The researchers still have to solve the challenge of interfacing hard electronic materials (such as the coiled wire that protrudes from the bionic ear) to soft biological materials (i.e., connecting the electronic output to the body’s nerves). The Princeton work shown above is considered a successful proof-of-principle study demonstrating that tissues and electronics can be combined to form hybrid, bionic organs. And the “ear” you see in the video picks up radio signals only, but to add picking up audible sounds is just a matter of incorporating another type of sensor.

The Princeton and similar research is good news for people of the future who may be born deaf, with an ear deformity, and anyone who is severely hearing impaired who may opt to have the ear that nature gave them replaced by a cosmetically identical bionic ear which will provide far better hearing than even the best hearing aid can offer them. Of course, such a procedure won’t be inexpensive; it’s a coming solution for the worst cases.

As a futurist, I get excited thinking about scientific and technological advances like these. People like me with mild hearing loss can regain normal or close-to-it hearing with today’s hearing aids. (I hear well with my hearing aids, but since I still perceive a constant high-pitched tone from my tinnitus, my hearing isn’t what it was when I was younger.) But gazing ahead just a few years, we should be looking at hearing aids that offer better-than-before hearing ability, and additional hearing powers that aren’t part of the standard human capabilities that we’re born with.

So, no, having a surgeon replace my natural ear with a bionic ear isn’t for me — or most of us. (Actually having this available is estimated to be about three years away.) But what I am looking forward to is when future hearing aids do more than just “fix” my hearing problem. Here are some ideas for a hearing aid of the future that would give you auditory “super powers” (without the surgery part):

Hearing aids that have user-directed, super-directional listening “beams” to clearly hear sound from where you’re looking, while noise from elsewhere is mostly blocked out. Many high-end hearing aids on the market today can do this to a degree, but researchers in Australia are working on technology that will improve on this vastly. (This is the kind of hearing super-power that might attract purchases and usage from non-hearing impaired people who often find themselves in high-noise environments. Surely it also will be coveted by CIA agents, detectives, private investigators, and their ilk.)

“Super-powered” hearing aids incorporated into “smart glasses.” Futurist Thomas Frey has described a future where smart glasses like Google Glass (of which there are a growing number of competitors) include augmented-hearing functionality. (“How Google Glass will Disrupt the Hearing Aid Industry?“)

Frey notes that Glass currently has an audio component:

“Glass does not have a typical earpiece but instead transmits sound through bone conduction. The use of this kind of non-obtrusive sound amplification creates the possibility for a device used as a hearing aid for those with low-level hearing loss. … Naturally a number of in-ear attachments could also be attached to compensate for whatever kind of hearing loss issues an individual is dealing with.”

Google Glass attempts to do a lot of things; it’s like having a computer on your face (albeit the computing power comes largely from Glass’ wireless link to the smartphone that you’re carrying). But not all smart glasses need to do so much. I envision a product that combines my eyeglasses and hearing aid into a single unit. Perhaps it would use bone conduction, or an in-ear receiver could be attached by a wire or cord to the glasses’ temples. … But here’s the great extra feature: stereo mini “shotgun” microphones on the sides of the eyewear facing forward, which can be enabled to allow focused hearing on what you’re looking at (to help in those noisy-environment situations I described earlier).

As Frey points out in the article linked to above, the future likely will bring “apps” — like those you can add to your smartphone, or to Google Glass — to hearing aids. Hearing apps might be installed on your smartphone, if it is communicating and controlling your hearing aids; or, in the case of smart glasses with built-in hearing aids, the apps are for the glasses.

Hearing-aid apps? Huh? … There are many, many possibilities. Perhaps you’d be interested in an app that allowed you to turn on police communication within a 1-mile radius of your current location and feed it directly to your ears. Or how about an audio translation app that let’s you understand a foreign-language speaker?

The future really is exciting for those of us with ears — whether they work well or are impaired.

Baby Boomers Will Be Sporting More Hearing Devices

As a media futurist, I’ve been pondering what’s ahead for hearing aids since I first got a pair less than a year ago to improve my own deteriorating hearing. “Futurists” can’t precisely predict the future — no one can — but it is possible to identify likely “plausible” futures, or forecasts that are among the most likely to be accurate.

I’ve been thinking for a while that people with mild hearing issues who are in middle age today will begin to purchase hearing aids at a younger age than their elders did. A bit of support for that prediction came this week in a well-done New York Times article, “Conjuring Images of a Bionic Future,” by technology columnist Farhad Manjoo. He wrote:

“It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the latest crop of advanced hearing aids are better than the ears most of us were born with. The devices can stream phone calls and music directly to your ears from your phone. They can tailor their acoustic systems to your location; when the phone detects that you have entered your favorite sports bar, it adjusts the hearing aids to that environment.

“The hearing aids even let you transform your phone into an extra set of ears. If you’re chatting with your co-worker across a long table, set the phone in front of her, and her words will stream directly to your ears.

“… I’m 35 and I have normal hearing. But if I could, I’d wear these hearing aids all the time.”

Most longtime hearing-aid users, I’m certain, don’t consider hearing aids “sexy.” But the new surge of features that turn new models into something “more than just hearing aids” have the potential to become desired wearable-technology devices.

You may be familiar with the term “wearables” used to describe small advanced technology devices that are worn on the body: fitness trackers, smart watches, smart glasses, wearable tiny cameras, etc. Get ready for “hearables” to be the next big thing. In fact, analyst Nick Hunn predicts in an upcoming market forecast that hearables, or smart earbuds, will be a $5 billion market by 2018. Of course, many of these coming-soon in-ear computing devices will not be primarily for solving hearing problems, but rather to provide users with entertainment, information, and communication direct to the ears.

Photo from Warner Bros. Pictures
In the recent movie “Her,” the main character (Joaquin Phoenix) wears a cordless ear device to communicate with his custom artificial-intelligence operating system, or digital assistant.

Now, I don’t expect that non-hearing-impaired teenagers and young adults will begin appearing in public wearing hearing aids. But the coming wave of cordless smart earbuds — no more tangled earbud wires! — using some of the same technology mentioned in the Times article to provide streaming music and phone calls directly to the ears, should sell well to the mass market. That strikes me as a safe prediction. Early devices in that category — for those with normal hearing — are still too visible to others and have short battery life, but it’s only a matter of time before they get better and are made more “invisible.”

What’s more likely (i.e., a plausible future) is that people with still-mild hearing problems will get tested, fitted for, and purchase new and coming-soon models of hearing aids with innovative, dare I say it, “sexy” features, earlier than the generation ahead of them did.

Currently, the average time that it takes a person who first recognizes that his or her hearing is declining to actually purchase hearing aids is about 7 years! (USA-only figures.) That sounds about right; my own experience was noticing some tinnitus and high-frequency hearing loss several years before purchasing my first pair of hearing aids.

Pete, a friend in his late 40s (I’m 57), seemed to confirm the validity of my prediction. I’ve told him about my experience, from the traditional (vast improvement in quality of life since my hearing aids restored the ability to hear birds sing and hold a cogent conversation in a noisy restaurant) to the innovative (how I love walking the family dog with music streaming in my ears and smartphone in a pocket, sans wires). Pete told me that while he had noticed some mild hearing loss, he hadn’t considered exploring hearing aids until he had that conversation with me.

Pete also noticed the Times coverage mentioned above, and forwarded me the article with these words: “I am starting to consider this hearing-aid thing, even before my hearing gets worse. Why wouldn’t I want to hear better than the average person?”

So, as far as “plausible scenarios” for the future of hearing aids, I’ll confidently predict that one is that of those people, especially in the Baby Boom age bracket, who begin to experience hearing decline, the time between recognition of the (still-minor) problem and resolution (purchasing hearing aids) will drop significantly from the current 7-year-average lag.

I hope that this future scenario does play out. It will improve the lives of many hearing-impaired individuals who otherwise would have procrastinated about finding a solution. And, of course, the makers of hearing aids will benefit from a growing customer base with a lower average age than current hearing-aid users. This likely future scenario also could be expected to increase the percentage of people with hearing problems who actually purchase and use hearing aids (which MarkeTrak estimates at only 25%), especially if hearing-aid prices drop due to technology trends and manufacturers getting a much larger customer base.

This sounds all rosy, I realize, but it’s not so simple. Modern hearing aids remain expensive, and millions of people suffer with untreated hearing loss because they cannot afford to purchase them. This is especially a problem in countries like the USA, where health insurance most often excludes coverage for hearing aids. The U.S. Affordable Care Act (better known as “Obamacare”) takes hearing aids into consideration, but most states’ ACA health insurance offerings don’t cover hearing devices, nor does Medicare.

Nations with more-generous healthcare systems (e.g., Finland) don’t leave behind as many poor people with impaired hearing — but even with hearing-aid assistance from a single-payer health-insurance system, the less affluent probably won’t be able to afford to upgrade to models that include “fancy” features such as linking with a smartphone.

Still, this technological revolution in hearing-aid technology should improve what today are some dismal statistics. Indeed, if hearing-aid manufacturers can succeed in making their products “sexy” and thus reduce the stigma that many people feel about wearing hearing aids, perhaps someday we’ll be walking in public and on close observation realize that a large percentage of our fellow citizens also have digital devices in their ears. … That’s a pleasant future scenario.