Leading hearing aid manufacturers like Phonak, as well as the big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google, are championing the next big game-changing wearable technology—hearables. And the biggest beneficiary of this could be hearing aid wearers.
Before the coronavirus came crashing down and completely changed the way we interact, you might have noticed more people wearing devices on their ears. It seemed like all of a sudden, everywhere you went, people were wearing Apple AirPods (or less expensive versions of them). AirPods absolutely exploded in 2019. Last year, Apple sold 60 million units according to industry experts. That’s after selling 15 million in 2017 and 35 million in 2018. Thanks to this technology, wearing gadgets on your ears is all of a sudden cool and popular. For hearing aid wearers, that certainly wasn’t always the case.
I got my first hearing aids back in 2004 when I was in my mid-thirties. I’ve been trying to hide them ever since. My first aids were the tiny completely-in-the-canal (CIC) devices. They were fairly inconspicuous, but definitely not invisible. Since none of my friends or work colleagues wore hearing aids, they became a conversation piece in my circle. And that’s the last thing I wanted.
Sure, like anyone else, I wanted attention, but not for my faulty ears. In other words, I didn’t want to be the guy with hearing aids. In my own mind, wearing hearing aids at a moderately young age changed who I was. It changed how I acted with others, what types of activities I pursued, and how much of my true personality I’d offer in a given circumstance. At times, I felt out of touch and irrelevant. At least to me, the stigma of wearing hearing aids was very real.
But that outlook has gradually changed over the past two or three years. My Phonak Audeo Marvel behind the ear hearing aids are fairly invisible. But now, seeing all these people with gadgets on their ears makes me want to show them off.
I wonder: “Why am I trying to hide my hearing aids?” Today, I no longer feel odd about others seeing my hearing aids. In fact, I feel like we’re living in a time where ear devices are the “in” thing. Certainly, technology is advancing to where hearing aids will help us do more than hear better.
The name hearable was first coined in 2014 by product designer application specialist Nick Hunn in a blogpost for a wearable technologies internet platform. In the post, he said “the ear is the new wrist,” referring to the popularity and potential of smartwatches, and how smart ear devices could have even more upside.
The definition is continuously evolving, but Clear Living refers to a hearable as “a wireless in-ear computational earpiece…a microcomputer that fits in your ear canal and utilizes wireless technology to supplement and enhance your listening experience.”
According to an article by Fast Company, Amazon, Apple, and Google are working on hearable products that are a mix of hearing aid technology and high-end headphones. And that’s just the start. Why the sudden interest from the big tech companies? Due to the popularity (and revenue potential) of personal voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant, these businesses are thinking their “voice technology” would be well-suited to whisper directly into our ears. Think in-ear devices that can provide audible GPS directions or automatically translate languages in real-time. The possibilities are endless.
Also, unlike the eyes, the ears are much better at multi-tasking. Listening to music is a common activity when exercising, working, even cleaning the house. Try any of those activities while staring at something else. It’s not possible. In addition, the human ear is almost perfectly designed for the attachment of devices. With a firm fitting, you can go about your life and practically forget about them (just don’t spontaneously jump in the pool, I’ve made that mistake more than once).
Phonak is also firmly on the hearable bandwagon, only they’re coming at it from another direction. The Virto Black hearing aids, introduced late last year, are doing what the tech companies can’t do, combining cutting edge hearing aid technology with modern hearable design and innovations. According to Phonak, Virto Black was “designed to blur the lines between a hearing aid and a hearable and help people seek treatment sooner thanks to the stylish design and innovative hearing aid technology designed to meet the needs of even severe hearing losses.”
A recent Phonak survey of more than 600 non-hearing aid wearers worldwide with hearing loss revealed a majority would choose Virto Black in comparison to traditional in-the-ear hearing aids. This is a huge development. It suggests that younger people are more willing to wear visible hearing aids. For those that have struggled with the hearing aid stigma issue, this is like music to our ears.
One of the most appealing aspects of the hearable movement is the potential to enhance societal health. Like smartwatches, future hearables could have built-in optical sensors to measure heart rate. The ability to monitor heart rate, during exercise and at rest, could greatly help people better monitor their cardiovascular health.
Another potential feature of hearables is the ability to detect a fall by an elderly wearer. With sensors built into a device, healthcare workers or even emergency personnel could be alerted in the event of an accident. In addition, research by IBM found that an algorithm that could be added to a hearable device could predict the likelihood of the onset of psychosis within five years and diagnose schizophrenia with up to 83 percent accuracy by analyzing speech components.
Hearable devices also might one day give us a better way to monitor worldwide health. In the past month, being able to monitor and track those with the coronavirus has been a major problem in stemming the spread of the disease. In some ways, the virus is a data problem. We just don’t have enough information about which part of the population is infected.
“Hearable devices also might one day give us a better way to monitor worldwide health.”
It’s feasible that hearable devices could serve as our internal healthcare monitor, with the ability to know our vitals at all times. What if in-ear technology could provide data to a national health database? One that reads vitals in real-time and identifies those with the virus, and alerts others in the vicinity. Is that sort of thing possible? What about issues of privacy and security?
I have no doubt that the technology is there to do something like that. Also, that in-ear devices, with their proximity to the head and relative ease of movement, are the perfect avenue for ascertaining a person’s health. In my opinion, the benefits of hearable technology will far outweigh the negatives. It’s worth it to see where these innovations can go, while ensuring a trustworthy path that keeps in mind both the individual and the greater good.
How do you think hearables can enhance how you live your life?