In the latest instalment of our manufacturers’ insight series, BIHIMA spoke to Nicola McLaughlin, Director of Product Management at Unitron, who reminds us not to underestimate the pace of technological change, which means hearing devices will have a broader purpose that goes beyond hearing sooner than we think…
What changes are on the horizon for hearing technology?
I think the future of hearing tech is super exciting.
For me there are three areas to look at…
Firstly, that traditional focus on sound performance is an area we’ve made tremendous strides in, but the holy grail of speech understanding in noise will continue to be a focus, as there is always room to improve.
On the other hand, we’ll expand into non-traditional areas that lead us to think differently about hearing instruments and the experience they provide. Artificial Intelligence and data analytics are more than buzz terms – they give us genuine insights into how people are using our hearing instruments, how they benefit from them and importantly areas we can improve. So, we’re making data driven decisions about our future innovations focused not only on hearing performance, but also the overall experience.
Then finally there’s the integration of other technologies. It’s not only about being able to hear better; in the future the technologies available within a hearing solution will also serve broader purposes.
What do you think some of these purposes might be?
Health monitoring is an obvious one, and the industry is already dipping toes in this area – using the ear to monitor heart rate or steps or fall prediction.
People will continue to want to use their hearing instruments to enhance their entertainment and their lifestyle. For example the experience of listening to music will get even better and solutions like instantaneous translation have the possibility to be commonplace through hearing instruments.
The integration of smart phones and apps opens up a world of possibilities for hearing instruments. This massive power of interface dramatically expands what we can do and the benefits we can offer. This includes improving the interface with our smartphone so our work, entertainment and social networking becomes easier. It also includes utilising the computation power of the smartphone to better understand how hearing instruments are used as well as customer preferences so we can enhance the overall experience.
Is the hearing industry ready for this?
A good analogy is the move to smartphones. One camp thought it was crazy to put a camera on a phone because initially the quality wouldn’t be great and people preferred separate devices. Obviously we know that’s not what happened! Like the smartphone industry I believe that integration is the way forward.
I feel really optimistic about our industry – legislation changes and regulation changes are all altering the landscape – and it means we have to rethink the customer experience both in terms of the solutions we provide as well as how we serve our customers.
What step change is needed to make this happen?
I think there are two drivers of change:
Firstly, the consumer themselves – they are younger and more tech savvy with different needs and expectations. As the people who start to need hearing instruments become those who have grown up with tech, they won’t just be open to this integration, they expect it.
And the other change needs to be with the hearing care professionals themselves. And we’ll need to move with this change, to add value and attract these new savvy customers.
So what is this future technology going to look like?
I don’t think it will converge to one particular thing. There will be one group who still want a hearing instrument to be invisible – so size and discretion will continue to be a point of innovation in terms of design.
But there’s another group for whom expanded functionality will be most important. And for this group we can be really creative. People who have Bluetooth devices in their ear all the time won’t have the same desire for discretion. For them the instrument can be a fashion item with purpose. This will happen more as we integrate with other devices and technology.
Do you see a call for this fashion driven style yet?
It’s definitely starting and change can happen rapidly so we shouldn’t underestimate how soon it will come.
I also think that people are not going to wait until they’re 65 before considering the benefits of hearing technology. This will continue to impact the fashion aspect of hearing instruments.
For example, I’m in my 40’s – and was at a Blues Fest over the weekend – my friend was encouraging her husband to consider hearing instruments as he struggled in this dynamic environment and wasn’t able to fully enjoy the experience.
How do you reach that younger customer group, one that is already open to integration and wearing devices in their ears?
It’s not how we have previously done it, especially if it’s a multi-purpose device that will enhance their life in multiple different ways. We can start to rethink how we market to and attract customers leveraging these new additional benefits.
I think a stigma still exists – we’ve just done a mini exercise with some of our field patients – and about half were blown away with how beautiful modern hearing instruments look because they still had their grandparents hearing instruments as their point of reference. Interestingly the other half of the group liked what they saw but already knew hearing instruments had come a long way in terms of aesthetics.
If you compare hearing instruments with glasses; people choose glasses with bright colours and outrageous shapes. But it’s not the same for hearing instrument… yet! We’re also starting to see technology integration in the optics industry. For example we have a local company that sells prescription focals that project in 3D information from your smartphone such as a text message or the weather, enabling the user to discretely read this information. A perfect example of a health solution that is also a fashion item in the early stages of convergence with technology.
What excites you about being part of the world of hearing technology?
Unitron is based in one of the tech hubs in Canada. We’re surrounded by 5000 start-up companies that have truly amazing technology. We have the ability to tap into innovative companies here, so there’s a lot of opportunity to engage and learn from other industries.
What is amazing about this industry is the phenomenal tech, but it’s also wonderful to know that the things we ideate and produce can change the way people live, interact and engage with their family and friends. It can change the entire way they experience life.
So, for me it’s the perfect combination of innovative technology that is at an exciting tipping point of opportunity, and ultimately will help people.
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.