WS AUDIOLOGY INSIGHT
In the third of our manufacturer insight series into the future of hearing technology, BIHIMA interviewed Heike Heuermann, Vice President of Platform Development at WS Audiology, who discusses how we can evolve the hearing aid to combine functionality with style…
Where do you see the future of hearing technology?
I was in research for a long time and began working with hearing technology at a time when the technology was still mostly analogue, with only some digital products in the high-end market. So I have seen a lot of evolution! Now I am looking after the technology at the core of the hearing aid – the chip, the operating system, the signal processing etc.
But I think that it is not sufficient to only look at improvements of the technology inside a hearing aid. The hearing aid market is changing rapidly in many respects. We see new ways evolving of booking an appointment with a hearing care professional. We see increasing pressure on healthcare systems across the world mainly due to demographics. Consumer behaviour is also changing. People want more stylish products – even many older people still feel young and want classy products. It’s worth remembering that players from consumer electronics intend to enter the market. We, the hearing aid industry, are offering what are first of all medical devices. We are quite successful in providing hearing solutions for people with moderate to severe hearing loss. Now, we need to intensify our efforts to address the mass of unfitted people with mild to moderate hearing loss. It will be a huge challenge for the future of hearing technology – how to combine best functionality with style.
How do you think this challenge can be met?
We need to work even more closely together with clinicians and audiologists than we already do. We need to take into account the different needs of today’s users as well as smart technology playing an increasingly important role in people’s daily life, while maintaining the high quality of our technology. The offering needs to be three-fold: audiology, connectivity and style. Over the years, we have optimised the chips, creating incredibly fast working processes within a very small and intricate platform, smaller than anything you will find anywhere outside our industry. But this sophisticated inner life is what the customers do not see. The biggest challenge is to keep our high quality standards while making the devices more attractive for the user – a simple ‘must have’, hearwear that facilitates their life in many ways.
If you had no limitations on design, what would the technology look like?
First of all, perfect hearing in all acoustic situations is still of highest importance. But if there was no restriction on cost or design, I would see a device which matches best self-perception, be it via style or feature set, and gives utmost independence, be it at work or in leisure time. That would include the use of smart technology and connectivity wherever and whenever the wearer wants to benefit from it, without having to worry about battery runtime so that he or she can be permanently online (to make phone calls, play music, check the weather forecast, whatever!), and that works reliably for many years. Quality and durability should stay on the same high level as for current hearing aids, which last up to five years in perfect condition. That is indeed a big challenge.
So, in addition to further improving sound processing, we need to continue to pursue miniaturisation, and better integrated smart connectivity too. For example, why not have the equivalent of modern voice assistants with your hearing aid as the interface? We can use this artificial intelligence. Much of this is just gadgets, and I am very reluctant to put this all into a product that is supposed to make people hear better again. But if there are gadgets which might help to encourage more people to manage their hearing loss why not integrate them? The key is to find out what consumers really want. Think of the glasses industry – when I was young, glasses were perceived as a bothersome means to an end – to see normally. What changed so that they are now seen as accessories suited for personal fashion statements, so much that some people wear glasses without any strength purely as a fashion statement, an expression of their individual style? We need to learn from this.
It is potentially a very exciting time, imagining hearing care becoming as normalised as eyewear. Do you feel optimistic about the future of hearing technology within this changing market?
I am optimistic, but we need to change our approach. We have to accept that healthcare systems are changing. There probably will be more privatisation than less. And we have seen developments in the United States with OTC legislation. So we need to learn from what is happening around us, and to liaise with partners such as clinicians and audiologists with direct contact to the consumer to better understand what consumers want. It would not be clever to ignore the manifold developments in the market or even worse, to oppose them, as we will be left behind – companies from the smartphone or headset industry might just take over our market with less sophisticated but cheaper products.
This extends to the fitting of hearing aids as well. We need to lower the barriers to access. For example, audibene, part of the Sivantos Group is an online support service for people in the early stages of identifying their hearing loss. The service is done by well-trained people who find out the priorities of the caller and then signpost them to nearby appropriate services. For the end-user, this provides a good opportunity to inform themselves without the pressure to decide immediately. Another approach is our TeleCare remote support which enables the hearing care professional to better accompany his customers during the first weeks of their trials and beyond.
These are just two examples of how we want to work more intensively with fitting experts in order to meet the requirements of modern society and to create easier access to hearing aids. Yes, let’s go for the next step of hearing aid technology and pursue miniaturisation, but also spend some more thoughts on how to get it out there. We have so many sophisticated technologies, let’s find new ways to convince more people of their incredible benefits.
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.
Find out more about our members here.