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. 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.