The Future of Hearing Aids

November 24th 2016

We came across a great article on the possible future of hearing technology recently. It was an interesting round up of what has happened with hearing aids in the last few years and what may happen in the future, so we thought we would talk about it.

The hearing aid industry is built on innovation, it is like an arms race, if one manufacturer stands still they will simply lose out. For this reason hearing instrument technology is constantly evolving and changing. The fortunes of the big six hearing device manufacturers is built on constant research and innovation. The author of the article spoke about how the concepts around hearing aids have been changing over the last few years. He felt that wireless hearing device innovation had really changed everything. 

I think that wireless hearing technology has delivered real benefit for people with hearing loss. It has helped to ensure that people with hearing loss can get benefit in as many situations as possible. While the author may be a bit biased (he worked for Widex for five years) his point about the focus of Widex when it came to the use of wireless protocols was quite valid. What he said was 

Initially, the only manufacturer who seemed to really understand the opportunity was Widex. Widex researchers believed that the real opportunity from wireless communication wasn't connecting to ancillary devices. It was connecting the hearing aids to each other which for the first time would allow two hearing aids to act as a system.

This approach has in fact borne real advancements in how hearing aids now work. Many of the hearing aid manufacturers are using this concept to allow their hearing aids to act as a system in varying degrees. He said, and we have found that when hearing aids can make decisions together using the sound information from two different sources they deliver a much better quality of hearing, a much more natural hearing. 

One of the things that is often said about the Widex sound in recent years is the sense of it being like natural hearing. This strategy of hearing aids working together allows them to make decisions together to provide the very best performance for the situation they were in. 

Connection To Smart Phones

Wireless hearing aids also led to the connection of hearing aids to the smart phone. Every hearing aid manufacturer has a smart phone app and connectivity to iPhones and Android phones. Usually though it was through some sort of streamer. However, two manufacturers decided that they wanted to go with direct connection. The first to do it was GN Resound with their original Made For iPhone hearing aids the Linx. They were closely followed by Starkey who released their own Halo device. However, late this year two more manufacturers joined the direct route, Oticon with its Opn device and Widex with its new Beyond device. 

The Latest Hearing Aid Innovations

In a recent, but interesting move, Phonak has introduced rechargeable hearing aids. This is a massive departure for them and it is the very first time that they have dabbled in rechargeable devices. As I spoke about in my recent article, Oticon has introduced hearing aids that are connected to the internet of things. These are two dramatically different innovations but I feel both will have a large impact on the future of hearing aids. Phonak Audeo B-R Rechargeable hearing aids

While rechargeable hearing aids have been around for a long time they have never really gained mass market acceptance. Both Siemens (now Sivantos) and Hansaton have offered rechargeable hearing aids for a long time. The problem with older rechargeable hearing aids has always been the amount of power available.

The major concern was always whether a user would get a full day of use out of a charge. That and the fact that the rechargeable batteries needed to be changed once a year meant that it didn't make sense. The power issue was further brought into focus when wirless hearing aids exploded on the scene.  However, the new devices from Phonak are based on Lithium-ion technology which will deliver a full days use and won't need to be changed for many years.

This should make rechargeable more attractive to users and providers like me. Again, like I said, arms race, because Phonak have gone down the route, I think we will see more of the manufacturers doing so. In fact shortly after the release Sivantos introduced their own Lithium-ion powered devices and there is a lot of talk that both GN and Starkey will do so in 2017. 

The Internet of Things

As I said, Oticon has just introduced their new device the Opn. They have designed it to have access to the internet and the IFTTT (If This, Then That) network. The hearing aids connect to the internet via the Oticon ON app on a smartphone. The IFTTT network is quite fascinating, it is designed to allow you to set triggers, which they call recipes. These recipes allow you to set up situations where by one action, automatically triggers another.

These recipes can have applications in the physical world applications that will just grow as the internet of things (IOT) grow. For instance, if your thermostat is internet connected, you can programme a recipe to turn your heating on when the temperature outside reaches a certain point. 

Internet connected hearing aids, Oticon Opn

The potential for recipes is only limited by the amount of devices that are connected to the IOT. Already more and more devices in the home are becoming smart. Oticon itself has designed some recipes including a notification in your hearing aids being triggered by the doorbell being rung and lights in your house or the coffee machine coming on in response to your hearing aids being turned on in the morning. Take a look at the video below to get an idea of what is possible

Amazing Vision

The author of the article was really excited about what he called "amazing vison", he said that "this is a far reaching innovation that came out of left field. This type of thinking will allow a whole new future for hearing aids and the benefits they provide for users."  I think that will remain to be seen, how useful these things are depend on how well adopted smart devices become in the home. 

However, he did make a valid case for a possible use of this type of technology, he said "If Oticon had integrated ear level sensors that monitored vitals, coupled with an accelerometer that could tell when someone has fallen. They could set the hearing aids to trigger a real time call for help. More than that, they could continuously monitor vital signs for health or fitness tracking. They could design an IFTTT recipe triggering weekly reports to be sent to anyone who the user wanted to have access like a physician."

I would agree with him that this type of feature would make a huge difference to older people with hearing loss. It would give them and their families a lot of peace of mind. It would also help to ensure that older people could stay in their own homes for longer rather than go into a care home. 

Hearing Aids Powered by Fuel Cells

One of the interesting things he spoke about was Fuel Cell powered hearing aids. This would be a whole new power source for hearing aids, a power source that could make a dramatic difference. There would be no more batteries, no more charging, simply hearing aids that could work for up to 72 hours with one shot of methanol.

Fuel cells have been talked about for many years and are seen as an excellent possible form of power for consumer electronics. They are hydrogen powered power sources, however, hydrogen needs to be contained in a pressurised container, so most of the research in hearing aids has been undertaken on Methanol. The work to finally bring the concept to market began in early 2016 and it appears that we may actually see the concept delivered to market in the near future.

The Future of Hearing Aids

The possible futures for hearing aids seem mind blowing and is only limited by the imagination of the R&D Engineers. We will definitely see rechargeable hearing aids becoming mainstream. We may even see widespread adoption of Fuel Cell technology if it can be made to work.

Remote fine tuning of hearing aids by professionals (which was introduced by Sivantos recently) will also grow. If you want changes made to the way your hearing aids work in the future. You won't have to attend your professional's office, they will be able to do it via the internet. This makes so much sense to everyone involved that all of the manufacturers will follow suit. 

Hearing aids will probably come equipped with sensors for tracking body vitals, it simply makes sense for this to happen. In fact Widex have already lodged a patent for exactly that. The modern user of hearing aids have different needs and wants from hearing aid users of ten or fifteen years ago. They are more active and health conscious as is most of society and health data will be of real interest to them.  

I think no matter what transpires, it is going to be an exciting time. 

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