In the next installment in our manufacturers’ insight series, BIHIMA spoke to Dr Dave Fabry, Ph.D., Chief Innovations Officer for Starkey, who believes that one day hearing technology could replace mobile phones…
Can you identify some of the future trends in the hearing market?
One of the things we’re seeing is an increased focus on overall health and wellness, and we’re excited about the role that hearing technology can play in this, as well as the role within overall information and data gathering. We see hearing aids becoming multi-purpose devices — just as we’ve seen the evolution in the mobile phone, which started as just a method of communication and now has so many functions.
Included within our current product reach is a device with an on-board integrated sensor that uses artificial intelligence: it has a fall detection and alert function, as well as heart rate measurement, step tracking, and a built-in virtual assistant. This last function enables users to ask a question verbally and, using artificial intelligence, it will then provide an audio output — in this way our hearing technology provides a gateway to information. It makes information particularly accessible for an ageing population that may have lessened manual dexterity because the device removes the need for a mouse or finger control.
Ultimately, at our core, we believe in great sound quality products. This will always be at the centre of our DNA as our mission is to “hear better, live better,” but we are now layering on features that help wearers feel more connected and healthier, increase the adoption of wearing hearing aids, and lessen the stigma.
And if you could look even further into the future?
In the future we expect to see tracking of other functions, especially health-related ones – one of the key missions on our road map is for hearing technology to provide a gateway to health and wellness. So for example, tracking heart function. The ear is a great place to achieve this kind of monitoring. Another advancement, which will be introduced later this year, will be the ability to measure heartrate after exercise and monitor the rate of recovery until the heart is back to its baseline. We will continue to assess all the co-morbidities with hearing loss and develop our technology to monitor them. Everything we do centres around the patient and their needs.
But if we were to go further into the future, completely pie in the sky, I can imagine a time when phones won’t be needed at all — when we can on-board all the functionality of the phone into a hearing device. I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years and I remember learning how to adjust hearing aids with a screwdriver. When we compare this to the refinement we can achieve now, we realise how rapid the progress has been. So hearing devices may evolve from being not just health and wellness products, but also entertainment and convenience devices. There is so much potential.
There is less and less stigma and this will only lessen further as we have higher expectations of what hearing aids can do for us. In the UK, less than 50% of people with hearing loss seek the help they need, and in the US it’s less than 30% of people — our role is to keep improving these figures. I can imagine a future in which hearing products are not a “have to wear” but a “want to wear.” Do we dare to imagine a time when people are waiting in line to get the latest hearing product?
I do not have diagnosed hearing loss but as part of the R&D team I wear the devices out and about all the time, in bright colours like red. I find people strike up conversations who hear about the scope of this technology and end up saying “Wow I’ve got to get one of those too!” For me this is a leading indicator that these products will increasingly become more widely adopted and that the stigma will continue to decrease.
What are some of the challenges to all this innovation?
I think we need to keep working on the aesthetic appeal of hearing devices, and also battery life is something we need to be mindful of when creating these new algorithms — rechargeable technology is helping with this. We also need to ensure that it is always an intuitive user experience; even as we layer on more functionality, the products still need to be user-friendly.
So for example, we currently have a product that uses a sensor to switch between streaming direct conversation and allowing background noise, and rather than having to find a tiny button, the user simply can tap on the side of the device to turn the streaming on and off.
Another challenge we are currently tackling is around remote management. We want to integrate methods so we can evaluate the status of the product in the field and allow for remote programming. Consumers are becoming increasingly active and don’t have so much time or inclination to go to appointments, so we need to allow for modification of the device without going back to the professional. Of course, we still need hearing professionals at the centre, those who understand both the auditory system and the needs of the patient, but we just need to connect them in more convenient ways.
This interview was conducted by BIHIMA. We represent the hearing instrument manufacturers of Britain and Ireland, working in partnership with other professional, trade, regulatory and consumer organisations within the health care and charitable sectors. We raise consumer awareness about the latest hearing technology, and aim to influence government and policy makers to improve the lives of people with hearing difficulties.
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