In the first of a new series investigating technology trends, BIHIMA has gathered insights on the role of smart technology and connectivity from amongst its members’ senior R&D leaders…

The digital revolution is shaping all of healthcare, not least hearing technology. The integration of smart technology has opened up vast possibilities. Hearing aids with Bluetooth technology allow users to connect to both Apple and Android devices for direct streaming. The technology enables not only better understanding of how hearing instruments are used, improving the hearing experience of wearers based on their individual preferences, but also additional benefits to make work, entertainment and social networking easier for people with hearing loss.

Oliver Townend, Senior Audiology Expert at Widex, offers this overview: “Connectivity has become an integrated part of modern hearing aids over the last few years. The main use is still within the realm of supporting hearing loss and hearing aid use – which means connectivity between the two hearing aids for improving feature benefit, connectivity to mobile phones and apps for remote control of features, as well as interaction between hearing care professionals and hearing aid users, and to a variety of assistive devices, making it easier for the users to hear phones, TVs or other people talking in noisy environments.”

Smart Technology and Connectivity

One of the key uses of smart technology has been in making life easier for hearing aid users. Brian Dam Pedersen, Chief Technology Officer at GN Hearing, says that one of the main focuses for them has been on the seamlessness of users’ experience – “to ensure easy integration into people’s busy lives. When developing hearing devices, we want to ensure they are convenient, innovative and seamlessly fit into every user’s everyday routines.”

For Phonak, the integration of smart technology into their products has been with an emphasis on connection: “Connecting with family, friends and colleagues is an inherent need for all people. The sensation of belonging, which is most often obtained via various forms of communication evokes the feeling of happiness. Meeting this need has been a strong driver,” said Ditlev Friis, Director of Speciality Business of Paediatrics & Adults at Phonak.

User participation

One of the chief goals for Oticon has been enabling users to have greater “participation”, to be “active partners” in their own healthcare: “The user is no longer a patient, but a co-creator of their health, says Thomas Behrens, Director of Oticon’s Centre for Applied Audiology Research. “They can participate through self-monitoring at home, self-adjustment of hearing aids within the realm of what the hearing care professional defined a priority.” It also allows greater personalisation: “hearing aids adjust themselves not only to the user, but also to changes during the day (e.g. more tired in the afternoon), during the week (such as different needs during the week when at work versus during the weekend), and also over time (for example, if hearing deteriorates).”

Dr Dave Fabry, Chief Innovations Officer at Starkey, says that one of their key motivators has been inclusivity – of simply including people with hearing loss in the ever-expanding phenomenon of digital tech: “We have long recognised the potential for transitioning hearing devices as “standalone” ones that compensate for hearing loss, into essential, multi-purpose ones that facilitate streaming of phone calls, music, media, and other audio. In a sense, we wanted to provide hearing aid users with the opportunity to have outstanding speech understanding in quiet and in background noise, but also to become as addicted to their “smart” technology as the rest of us! This has developed so that now we are creating a gateway to information by providing direct access to personal voice assistants, navigation assistants, real-time translation/transcription.  In effect, the connectivity provides a way to augment intelligence by providing a gateway to information in ways that were not possible without this direct connectivity.”

So what does the future hold for the role of smart technology in hearing devices?

There have only been a few and not very successful attempts in the industry to combine the internet of things to use of hearing aids,” says Oliver Townend from Widex. “As we see it today, we are missing good use cases where it really makes a difference that the hearing aid is involved in the combination with other smart technology devices. We still miss seeing a real impact on the design of hearing aids from this smart tech trend.”

“That it has not happened yet does not mean that it will not happen in the future. We expect the push for change here to come not only from the hearing industry but more from devices around us. As consumers get more and more used to wearing various devices for sound processing and other uses, that provide some extra benefit because they are connected to smart technology in the home, these uses will also start being part of what they expect from their top-end hearing devices. In large scale, we do not see this in the very near future, but as time passes, there will be fewer borders between the medical devices and the more consumer oriented electronic devices.”

Thomas Behrens from Oticon agrees that there needs to be more evidence of audiological benefit. “It is our position that we still need to see the real audiological application of the technology. The current uses do not solve any problems in a new way compared to before, or do they solve problems that we haven’t already come up with a good solution for. So there is a lot of hype around it that I think consumers should be looking out for.

“Having said that, we do see a lot of potential in the technology and, as we invest in it, we hope that our research will help solve some problems that we currently cannot solve with existing approaches. We want to use such technologies to help facilitate the processes that are already in place in the brain and we have ongoing research into how we can monitor brain processes and look for improved outcome in terms of improvements to these brain processes.

“In the future we believe the interaction between hearing devices and smart tech will be increasingly two-sided,” continues Brian dam Pedersen from GN Hearing. “Currently, smart tech feeds into hearing devices, but as there is a trend in the rise of accessibility, we will see smart tech being catered for users wearing hearing aids.”

The influence of smart technology

Erik Harry Høydal, Senior Audiology Expert at Signia thinks that the integration of smart tech will also shape design, due to the fact that connectivity always comes with a cost, either in power consumption or in size. For in-the-ear devices, there are some physical limitations to how deep in the ear-canal one could place a device and still achieve a Bluetooth connection, but it’s an interesting field where I think we’ll see a lot of creative solutions coming out soon.”

Ultimately, he continues, “the connected world is moving fast, and we need to adapt. The new Bluetooth standard will be very interesting, not only providing low energy audio, but also covering a lot of other use cases to embed the hearing aids in a real Bluetooth ecosystem. I think we, as an industry, have to consider ourselves as part of a larger eco-system where we naturally have to fit in. The ear canal will be an exclusive location in the future, and we need to ensure we earn the right to be there. This can only be achieved through paying close attention to the big trends around us, adapt and accommodate the needs of a modern user.”

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 – January 2020.