One of the more important products in tech health has been the hearing aid. For decades, hearing aids have been around to help people with hearing problems live relatively normal lives. Most have been used to enhance hearing for millions who have had trouble hearing due to a multitude of issues. More recently, an implantable Hearing Aid from Chochlear, often referred to as a bionic ear, can even restore hearing to the deaf, although it costs between $40,000 and $100,000 but it can be life changing for some.
The one problem for those who need or want a hearing aid in the past has been the cost. Over the last four decades, prices have ranged between $2500 and up to $10,000 for a set of hearing aids. In many cases, it is recommended that they are authorized by a professional audiologist or medical doctor specializing in hearing impairment. Although this is only mandatory under FDA rules for anyone under 18.
Until recently, most used very tiny batteries that had to be changed frequently to power them. Some of the newer ones are now rechargeable but are still well over $3000. Last August, the US Government signed into law the Food and Drug Reauthorization Act that includes the “Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act” designed to provide the public greater accessibility and more affordable over-the-counter hearing aids.
Since that time many lower cost hearing aids have come to market. An excellent example of this is Zvox Voice Bud VB20 that starts at around $300. Technically it is not positioned as a hearing aid but rather a hearing amplifier. Consequently, this can even be bought on Amazon.
In the past, most hearing aids were designed just for hearing problems and hearing enhancements, but one company I spoke with at CES, Starkey Hearing, has an even grander vision for the role a hearing aid can play in a person’s life. With voice assistants and voice being used to control lights, thermostats, and other IoT devices, Starkey is building into their design much more than a hearing aid. Their Livio AI Hearing Aid, https://www.starkey.com/hearing-aids/technologies/livio-artificial-intelligence-hearing-aids besides delivering high-quality sound, has built in sensors to track body and brain health. It can even do fall detection. It features integrated sensors and Artificial Intelligence that is enhanced by tying it to a smartphone. Using their Thrive App on a mobile phone linked to the Livio AI Hearing aid, you can even get streaming of cell phone calls, TV, music, and other media. The representative I spoke with told me that eventually, it would also include support for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s OK Google voice assistants.
The flip side of this is that Apple’s AirPods add some of these added features minus the health tracking, fall detection, and hearing aid. I would not be surprised if health tracking will be included in the next version of their popular earphones. While using them as hearing aids may be on the roadmap, I don’t think this new version will add that feature. But what both products have in common is the idea that voice and hearing are critical to our next phase of innovation of the man-to-machine interface.
In a rather provocative interview with the Wall Street Journal, Netscape Browser inventor and VC, Mark Andreesen had this to say about Apple’s AirPods:
Q: What’s the potential in wearables?
A: I think the really big one right now is audio. Audio is on the rise, and particularly Apple with the AirPods has hit just an absolute home run. It’s one of the most deceptive things because it’s just like this little product and how important could it be? I think it’s tremendously important. Because it’s basically a voice in your ear any time, you want it. [emphasis mine]
I’ll give you just one random example. There are these new kinds of YouTube celebrities, and everybody’s wondering where do people get all this spare time to watch all these YouTube videos and listen to all these YouTube people in the tens and tens of millions. The answer is they’re at work. (audience laughs) They’ve got a Bluetooth thing in their ear, and they’ve got a hat, and it’s ten hours on the forklift. Ten hours of Joe Rogan.
The operative phrase from his comment is “a voice in your ear anytime you want it.” That voice can give you information, directions, music, entertainment, as well as serve as a way to manage devices in your home, office, and vehicles. Using AI, it will learn what you are interested in and using geotagging to deliver that info in real time as you need it.
People who need a hearing aid will potentially get this “voice in the ear” so they could also use it to control their IoT devices, health tracking, get information and use voice assistants, which extends the value of their hearing aids into new dimensions. On the other hand, for those without hearing impairments, many of the newer earbuds will become smarter and add various health features, better sound quality and I some cases even combine sound amplification.
I don’t think that hearing aids with intelligence and smart earbuds are necessarily on a collision course since the people who really need hearing assistance will always opt for something that is designed to solve serious hearing problems. However, smart hearing aids will become even more critical as a means for these folks to help them not only hear better, but it will become a crucial part of the way they navigate their digital universe.
Smart earbuds will do the same for the rest of us by becoming a vital tool for us to navigate the digital world and become an important communication medium in the man-to-machine user interface. This will become even more important when AR glasses hit the scene and voice and gestures will be the predominant way we use AR and Mixed reality applications over time.
It’s no coincidence that we see so much activity in hearing aids and earbuds where both products are tying them to a smart digital world. This is an ear to watch closely as I expect even more innovation in this space in the next 18 months.