In the next installment in our manufacturers’ insight series, BIHIMA spoke to Thomas Lang, Senior VP, Phonak Marketing, who believes the future of hearing devices is full of opportunities…
Where do you see the future of hearing technology?
If you think about the future then obviously the technology for hearing aids will improve, but let’s not forget the consumer, as technology must go hand in hand with consumers’ changing needs and expectations.
In terms of the tech, we will have much more powerful chips that will change signal processing; improving the signal to noise range for better understanding in challenging listening situations. We will also see improved charging solutions; disposable batteries will be gone. Artificial Intelligence is also a technology that will impact all aspects of hearing care. We will have better and more individualised solutions along the entire patient journey.
We will see connectivity changes – hearing aids will be able to connect with technology in public places: train stations, airports, parks, theatres. Hearing aids will also be more multifunctional than ever, for example tracking health and wellness parameters of the user.
We will also have more individualised solutions. Of course, in-ear products are already customised. There will be more of this, including possibly behind-the-ear customisation. Different colours and shapes will be individualised to a persons’ need, such as altering the shape to fit with glasses or creating specific styles.
Today we have hearing aids and we have Cochlear Implants, the latter for severe hearing damage. These devices will work completely seamlessly with each other in the future. Today you can use both, but they work rather independently of each other.
Overall our connection to the world around us will be much more seamless with the use of hearing devices. In the future, wherever you are this tech will work automatically.
So how do we address the stigma to allow us to make the change to ‘seamless connectivity’?
The good news is that we already see stigma going down. People understand that they need technology to solve a major problem. In parallel, we see hearables being used more and more in public. There needs to be a change in social behaviour. Today, if I put hearables or earbuds in my ears, it signifies I don’t want to listen or talk to anybody. There needs to be a social change in the perception that such devices don’t mean avoidance – that there can still be interaction. It has started already in the younger generation, but it needs to be more socially accepted.
If you had no limitations on design, what would the technology look like?
I think the perfect hearing aid should sit in the ear, like a contact lens is on the eye. It should be there all the time; you don’t remove it. It recharges while you’re sleeping, perhaps via a charging system in your pillow. It would offer connectivity. It would be waterproof. Only removed once a month or once a quarter. It essentially becomes part of your body. We have a product called Lyric that remains in your ear for up to 3 months. It’s not yet rechargeable and doesn’t have connectivity, but Lyric users are super satisfied and it’s going in the right direction!
What are the barriers for hearing tech right now?
There are still some technology and physical limitations to achieve better hearing, seamless connectivity and superior user experiences. Hearing aids must run and be worn up to 18 hours a day and the requirements in terms of power consumption and reliability are very tough. But change is happening so fast that I have no doubt we will get there. We constantly have new innovations – every 2 years is a new platform launch at Phonak. Right now, we live in a world of exponential acceleration, so we need to be aware of these changes, to constantly develop superior solutions.
Can you identify some of the future trends in the hearing market?
The current key trends in technology are around seamless connectivity and re-chargeables.
We see younger generations actively looking for and embracing digital solutions and changing attitudes to hearing care. This crucially means that the stigma of wearing hearing devices is reducing and becoming more accepted. We will reach a stage where hearing aids become more requested; where it will be an issue if someone doesn’t have a hearing aid rather than the other way around.
In the long term, I’m convinced we will still see more development in technology – and we might also see some new business models – the way they are sold will change. Today there is a very personal relationship with the consumer and audiologist. But there will be more online activity in the future. The consumer will decide how they want to engage: maybe they want remote support, solving the solutions on their own with an app? The consumer will decide.
Finally, we will have much more research showing the impact of untreated hearing loss. For example, the recent learnings showing the connection of hearing loss with dementia. Going forward we will have a better understanding of what it means not to treat hearing loss, in order to convince people to wear a device.
What does this industry mean to you?
One of the beauties of our industry is that we change peoples’ lives. We get letters and emails every day. Parents of children who have learned to speak. Elderly people whose isolated lives have been transformed. It shows how important this technology is and the benefit it has. We are in a good position as an industry to solve these challenges and it is one of the true pleasures of working in it.
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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