Jan/Feb 2012

Look out, Jack Bauer. You’re not the only one with high-tech, in-ear communications. My granny’s got them too.

Hearing aids, long the exclusive territory of the aged, are newly hip. Today’s digital hearing aids not only correct hearing deficiencies, cancel out background noise, and amplify voices, they also wirelessly connect to mobile phones, TVs, music players, laptops, and tablets—providing an unparalleled listening experience, or a private one, if you prefer.

For example, hearing aids from all six of the leading global manufacturers (Starkey, GN ReSound, Widex, Oticon, Siemens, and Phonak) can stream TV audio directly to hearing aids, via a base station connected to the TV. Streaming TV audio into the ear allows hearing-impaired people to watch TV with family and friends without turning it up to an annoying volume level, or suffering through without understanding the dialogue. Wireless connections to Starkey’s SurfLink Media Hub follow users automatically as they move from room to room, meaning you’ll stop hearing the living room TV when you leave the room and connect automatically to the kitchen’s HD radio when you arrive there. Widex’s TV-DEX features a manual remote with volume control that a user “docks” in each base station to establish communication.

Widex’s CLEAR hearing aids also offer a capability that spouses have secretly wanted for millennia: a “spouse off button.” Actually known as the “Room Off” button, this feature turns the hearing aid’s microphones off, leaving only the streaming soundtrack—great for when you’re watching American Idol with someone who can’t keep his commentary to himself. Widex’s M-DEX mobile phone streamer also includes “Room Off,” making it easier to take calls in noisy environments, such as a transit station or sporting event.

Taking the opposite approach, ReSound’s ”Mini Microphone” encourages 1:1 conversations through a microphone the companion clips to his or her shirt that streams the voice directly to the hearing aids without any intermediary device – all within an unnoticeable sub 10 millisecond delay. This is made possible by ReSound’s proprietary 2.4 GHz wireless protocol.

The Mini microphone can also sit on a table to collect voices from a group. It also has an audio jack to stream content from pretty much any portable media source.
Marrying hearing aids and cellphones has been my dream ever since I was diagnosed with hearing loss a couple of years ago. I know first-hand how poorly hearing aids work with mobile phones—besides occasional “whistling feedback,” I can’t use any headset with earbuds because my hearing aids are in the way. ReSound and Widex solve this problem with a Bluetooth bridge, much like the Companion and Mini Mics. You can pretend you’re in the cast of Star Trek: Next Generation with ReSound’s Phone Clip: Clip it to your clothing, tap it to use your phone. Widex’s M-DEX is a handheld unit similar to but smaller than a cellphone. Accepting a call on the M-DEX streams stereo audio from the phone in your pocket to paired hearing aids, with volume and call controls on the handheld including “Room Off.”

Wireless connectivity for advanced digital hearing aids is not limited to communications between the hearing aids and other devices. The new hearing aids also talk to each other—up to 21 times per second, per Widex’s James W. Martin, Jr., AuD. Inter-device communication allows digital hearing aids to create three-dimensional sound profiles by listening, sharing, and adjusting for slight time and volume differences between ears, a process known as “binaural spatial mapping.” This technology gives people with hearing aids a significant advantage. Aas GN ReSound’s VP of marketing Kevin Mensink put it, digital hearing aids allow hearing to be “enhanced above and beyond what a normal-hearing person can do.”

The concept of hearing aids communicating with each other through the brain leads naturally to the question of “specific absorbed radiation” or SAR, the measure of how much radiation is absorbed by the body. While it’s easy to imagine connected hearing aids slowly cooking your brain, the physics don’t bear that out. Most hearing aids use a tiny, one-volt battery and operate at about 5% of the power level of a Bluetooth headset, according to Starkey’s president, Jerry Rudzika. Widex estimates a 10-minute cellphone call with the phone held to your head produces RF exposure equal to 1,640 years of inter-hearing aid communication, 12 hours per day. If something is going to cook your brain, it’s not digital hearing aids.

One of the issues slowing widespread adoption of hearing aids is the cost. A set of high-tech hearing aids with accessories can set you back $3,000-$8,000 including fitting, and is not generally covered by health insurance. Each family must make its own value decision. A recent study published by Harvard Health revealed 20% of American adolescents have a hearing loss comparable to normal age-related hearing loss in 60 year olds. The Better Hearing Institute estimates only one in four people with significant hearing loss seek treatment. How much is it worth to re-engage with a family member who has withdrawn or is difficult, in part because he or she can’t hear? How much is it worth to have your own hearing corrected … and on top of that, easily listen to virtually any audio source without scrambling for a headset? If you’re the CEO, what would it be worth to have your staff stream answers to shareholder questions, discreetly into your ears, during the annual meeting?

Collectively, the world’s hearing aid manufacturers are turning utilitarian hearing aids into high-tech lifestyle accessories that enhance the personal conversations and entertainment programming we value the most. Hearing aids aren’t just for old people any more. Just about everyone would enjoy streaming audio content directly into their ears, with any hearing problems corrected at the same time. Imagine the possibilities once cloud services enter the picture. With access to an online address book and calendar, your hearing aids could serve reminders, dial into conference calls, call your contacts, and read your email or text messages to you. The possibilities seem limitless.

So go out right now and get your hearing tested. Then use the results as your excuse to get some cool digital hearing aids. You’ll be glad you did!

Laurie Lamberth’s hearing loss is from a toxic side effect of modern antibiotics known as “ototoxicity.” She encourages everyone to learn how to identify and stop this preventable cause of hearing loss, and to be cautious about medications that list hearing loss among their side effects. For more information, visit www.betterhearing.org

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