In the latest of our series investigating technology trends, the UK hearing technology manufacturers explain how big data is affecting the impact, design and future of hearing technology.

Big data, the existence of huge volumes of information (measured in units as impenetrable as exabytes, terabytes, gigabytes and even zettabytes) can now be made sense of using super computers and algorithms, enabling products and services to predict future needs, behaviours and contexts.

In hearing technology, direct connectivity via Bluetooth means data can be pulled from hearing instruments and their accompanying apps, and sent to the cloud so that it can then be leveraged by hearing care professionals. This technical data allows hearing technology manufacturers to understand how often certain parameters are being changed and in which sound environments, knowledge that is of huge benefit for R&D purposes.

The right to privacy

Right from the off, however, all hearing manufacturing companies are keen to talk about the absolute need for security and consent, as many hearing technology users might have concerns about how the information from their device is used. Dr Dave Fabry, Chief Innovations Officer at Starkey, insists that, “We recognize the importance of protecting patient confidentiality and data privacy in ways that consumer products are not required to safeguard.  As such, all of our use of “big data” and cloud computing are compliant with HIPAA and GDPR requirements, while providing the opportunity to optimize hearing aid performance in different listening environments by using anonymized aggregate data.”

Erik Harry Høydal, Senior Audiology Expert at Signia, agrees that “in an industry where we’re dealing with patients and medical devices, data privacy is extremely important. We have a responsibility to make sure that no data can be traced to any individual, and this is always first priority. That being said, we would be failing both our users, our hearing care professionals and science in general if we did not analyze what works and what doesn’t. That’s a necessity for moving forward, finding that next big detail that makes hearing aids better or new algorithms that can help more people.

Making the data work

The data collected is used in all sorts of ways to improve hearing care in the long term, making analyses and recommendations for optimal settings in different situations and refining these over time as more and more user data is submitted. “All this data is put to good use,” explains Shaun Coghlan, Senior Product Manager eSolutions, Unitron. “Our use of big data provides context around the daily experience of clients with hearing instruments. This context includes details about the amount of time they spend in specific listening environments, as well as self-reported ratings on the quality of their hearing experiences (both positive and negative).

“We also use big data to understand where clients are in their hearing care journey and support them as they adapt to life with hearing instruments,” he continues. “Research shows there are 111 things a new wearer needs to learn – using big data enables us to provide time-sensitive notifications to their smartphone about care, maintenance, and how to get the most from their hearing instruments. Releasing the hearing care professional and the wearer from supporting and remembering all these steps means both can spend more time on meaningful experiences.”

Perks for professionals

Hearing technology companies then collaborate with hearing care professionals, giving them access to body of knowledge that is truly evidence based. This is meant to benefit audiologists, according to Erik Harry Høydal, because “the modern audiologist deserves better insights than just wearing time, and our job is to also equip them with the best tools to optimize the individual user as best as possible. It’s definitely a topic we’re investing in, and which will make a huge impact.”

Shaun Coghlan agrees that the hearing care professional’s work is improved through the use of big data: “Big data has the potential to offload a lot of the guesswork from hearing care professionals to software that can analyse, visualize and provide recommendations. This allows hearing care professionals to focus on parts of their job they find more rewarding – like building relationships and helping to reconnect their clients with to the people and things they love through better hearing.”

Individuals vs data

However, some hearing technology experts inject a note of caution into all the enthusiasm about big data. Kim Tilgaard, Vice President of Discovery, Audiology and Embedded Solutions at Demant, says that “Big data is a means – a tool – not an end goal. There is a lot of hype about it but we must remember that overall we are trying to create the best possible audiological experience for users.

“There is high potential in big data and much more benefit to be gained in the future, but ultimately this is a hearing aid and not a Fitbit or any other kind of consumer tool,” he continues. “While the data gives us lots of information about users today so we can create better technology, we need to remember that our products are for people who are often isolated, grandparents who can’t hear their grandchildren, and we try not demand too much interaction, unlike some of our competitors who are requiring lots of input from users.”

“There is also potential in small data or what we call local data – the information we will get in the future from sensors which tell us about brain activity and brain effort,” he continues. “We believe in personalised care and so there is a limit to how many conclusions we can draw from big data – it is very useful to understand trends but it is not so good for individualised solutions.”

An improvement movement

The counter-argument to this, put forward by Erik Harry Høydal, would assert that many users welcome the opportunity to be part of a bigger picture. “We believe in the joint force of hearing aid wearers globally helping each other hear better. Creating an intelligent live neural network that allows for this is definitely something that will change the industry for the better. You do not need any personal data for such a system, it’s all in the beauty of big data and self-optimizing algorithms. Done right, you can empower users to take part in shaping their own sound experience through the experience of others.”

He appreciates that this vision demands a level of accessibility for all users, not just the most technology literate, and that this will affect future design. “To enable for big data to help users, we need to empower the user. This means that we need to create easy understandable systems where the user can express their preferences in layman terms. Design wise, this directly impacts app-design. Allowing even non-techy elderly to participate in such systems.”

Data shaping design

Inevitably, the big data demand has shaped many aspects of design. According to Ditlev Friis, Director of Speciality Business, Phonak, “one of the most important areas for optimizing sound quality and hearing performance is the placement of microphones on hearing aids. ‘Big data’ from hundreds of thousands of hearing aids have generated insights that have led to new designs on both the external and internal part of the device. It has also led to design optimizations in regard to how we shelter the microphones from wind in order not to generate wind noise.”

Yet this is just the tip of the technological iceberg, say many hearing technology experts who expect the future to be increasingly shaped by big data:  “When combined with advancements in machine learning, connectivity and distributed computing, big data will enable us to design a complete hearing system that adapts to a client’s life automatically,” says Shaun Coghlan.

“What really excites me about big data is all the learnings we’ll discover. Being able to analyse anonymous data, look at trends across a large population and combine that with the context of how different people experience the same settings opens immense opportunity. We’ll be able to develop tools that automatically suggest and make changes to a fitting as the client moves through life, changing acoustic environments from one moment to the next.”

Predictions for the future

Brian Dam Pedersen, Chief Technology Officer at GN Hearing, explains further that “today, the machine learning at work in hearing aids doesn’t happen in the hearing aid itself, but rather makes use of the greater processing power in the smartphone that it connects to via an app. The next step in using big data is using AI and machine learning on the chip of the hearing aid itself, with algorithms that learn from the sound environments coming into the hearing aid to automatically adjust the settings. This provides the best possible experience for users when they are in different environment, such as in a restaurant, cycling out on the street, or watching TV.”

Offering an even wider lens on the future, Oliver Townend, Senior Audiology Expert at Widex, concludes that “the next technological leap in hearing aids and health care in general will be driven by data-driven approaches with proper utilization of AI. I believe that our customers will see this directly through new innovative applications and systems. However, customers will also experience this indirectly by manufacturers like us, heath care providers etc. simply getting wiser on everything from customer needs to how different technologies are used and perform after they leave the R&D laps.”

 

About BIHIMA

The British Irish Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (BIHIMA) represents in the UK and Ireland the world’s leading hearing instrument manufacturers. We work in partnership with other professional, trade, regulatory and consumer organisations within the health care and charitable sectors. Our goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of hearing well, making available the very latest in hearing technology aligned to consumer and hearing healthcare priorities to enhance the lives of those affected.

This article appeared in Audio Infos Magazine – April 2020.