A Happy New Hear

Last year I coined a new term – “Hearables“, for things you put in your ear. Much of what’s happening in that space is being driven by developments in hearing aids. Hearing aids have made immense technical progress since the first electronic ones were introduced to the market over fifty years ago. Few people remember those early ones – they involved large battery packs and amplifiers which people strapped underneath their clothing. But the benefits of better hearing were so great that people were prepared to do that. Today hearing aids are so small that you hardly notice them, whether you’re the wearer or an observer. The technology within them has also made incredible strides. They may contain multiple microphones, which, along with clever digital signal processing lets you focus on sound coming from in front of you, behaving much like your ear. They can also adjust the way they amplify sound to cope with different locations, from noisy streets to the office, restaurants and the home. The amount of technology which has been squeezed into such a small space is incredible, surpassing other high tech products like tablets and phones for the sheer density of electronics.

Despite the progress in performance and technology, few hearing aids do more than react to the ambient sound. That’s about to change, thanks to a cooperative development between EHIMA – the European Hearing Industry Manufacturer’s Association and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. They’ve come together to add a new generation of ultra-low power Bluetooth wireless to hearing aids, which will enable them to connect to a wide range of devices which can stream music and audio to them, in addition to their current functionality as pure hearing aids.

When most people think of Bluetooth and ears, their first though is the traditional Bluetooth headset, which is used by drivers who want to receive phone calls. In recent years these have been joined by wireless stereo Bluetooth headsets which stream music from mobile phones and music players. The vision of EHIMA and the Bluetooth SIG for the next generation of hearing aids is much wider, encompassing many different sources of voice and music that people experience throughout the course of a day. It reflects a change in the way people interact with sounds of all kinds. More and more of us wear headphones or earbuds for a significant part of our day. The move to digital music, whether from a local music player, or being streamed via a broadband network has made a much greater variety of music and radio channels available. But this variety, particularly for personal listening, is difficult for hearing aid users to access. A few hearing aids have already started to use Bluetooth to connect to recent models of iPhones, bringing some of this experience to users, but the vision is to go far beyond that, bringing wireless audio to every smartphone and audio visual product which we use, as well as embedding it into community and public spaces.

It is a major challenge to add all of this extra functionality without a significant reduction in battery life. To achieve that the designers are utilising the extremely low power capability of the latest Bluetooth Smart specification. It’s already used in smartphones and tablets to connect them to a growing number of fitness and wearable devices, from sports shoes to health monitors to smart watches. Until now it’s only been able to transfer small amount of information such as how far you’ve walked or how many calories you’ve burned. Now the engineers who develop the Bluetooth specifications, in conjunction with experts from hearing aid companies, are working on adding audio to the wireless standard without a large impact on the battery life.

They’ve also realised that consumers will want to be able to listen to lots of different things during the course of their daily life. The new hearing aids will allow them to receive an audio feed from their TV or radio when they wake up, stream music to them from their phone or get directions from their satnav on the way to work; make calls with their work phone or PC, listen to their TV in the evening when they get home, or a film at the local cinema. All of the time the hearing aid also works as a hearing aid, letting them take control of what they want to hear.

A key component to the research within this project is to understand how people listen to things. For most of us it’s instinctive – we simply face the source of the sound and our ears and brain do the rest. With wireless, you can no longer turn towards the transmitter, as there may be multiple sources of the wireless audio within a home or office. So as well as working to add low power music capability to hearing aids, the designers have had to consider how users can make their listening selections. That’s involved looking at using smartphones, keyfob sized remote controls and even more advanced technologies like smart watches and gesture control to let people navigate their way through a new world of wireless sound.

Thinking about how they will be used has led to other benefits. For over 40 years hearing aid users have relied on a telecoil system to listen through their hearing aids in public spaces like theatres, buses and ticket counters. The new Bluetooth standard will replace that, providing better sound quality and also making it far more economic to install equipment that supports hearing aids. As a result we’ll see an increase in the number of places where hearing aid users can connect directly to a person or public announcement. It may even mean they get a more audible response than other people who rely on poor quality speakers to converse with someone the other side of a ticket counter.

Another key requirement that’s being worked on is the ability to share sounds. So multiple members of a family will be able to use their hearing aids to listen to a TV, or share music from a phone, each with the ability to set their own personal volume. Using wireless to share music has long been considered one of the most difficult aspects of wireless technology. The combination of expertise from hearing aid experts and wireless developers has finally found a viable solution which will find use from the dance-floor to the church, and the theatre to the front-room sofa.

Alongside these development, researchers are looking at the ear as the best place to measure elements of our health. Earbuds are starting to appear which can measure our heart rate, temperature and fitness, by counting steps and working out how many calories we have burnt. There are even companies building pulse oximeters into earbuds to check the oxygen saturation in your blood. Compared with the wrist, which is where most people wear fitness bands, the ear provides more stable measurements because it’s moderately static. It may even be possible to take non-invasive measurements of blood pressure using a wireless music ear-bud. Whilst none of these measurements are relevant for the basic, everyday operation of a hearing aid, it looks highly likely that some hearing aids may incorporate them, particularly for people with hearing loss who regularly take part in sports and exercise.

Perhaps the biggest revolution will come in the way that people perceive hearing aids. Far too many people put off using hearing aids; it’s estimated that most hearing aid users would have benefited from acquiring one ten years before they’re first fitted. Part of that is due to perception, as a significant number of people still feel that there is a stigma associated with wearing them. That’s quickly dispelled when you try one of these new generation of hearing aids. They’re so light you barely notice you’re wearing them and the music quality is startling. As the new Bluetooth specification evolves that quality will get better and better. Many years ago spectacles had the same issue – they were seen as a necessary aid, but weren’t fashionable. Today there is a massive designer industry in frames. The same is true of orthodontic braces, which have transformed themselves from a piece of ugly dental mechanics to fashion jewellery. As it becomes possible to increase the connectivity and quality of hearing aids they’re likely to evolve to be just as desirable as any other piece of consumer electronics. Not only is that good for the industry, it’s really good for consumers who will start to wear them at an earlier age, saving themselves from a decade of imperfect, frustrated hearing loss.

It will take time to bring this new vision to the market place, but all aspects of the consumer electronics and hearing aid industries are behind it, working hard to make it happen. It’s almost certain that the advances being made by the hearing aid companies will percolate down to consumer audio products giving us a new generation of wireless earbuds and headsets with battery lives of weeks or more between charges. At CES this year we’re starting to see the forerunners or these devices which bring the promise of a new world of sound for those with hearing loss, and a future where hearing aids will be seen as both fashionable and desirable.