Meet the next gen of ‘hearables’

Remember the hearing aids your grandparents used? Chances are, they were big, daggy, and not something that looked particularly cutting edge.

Fast-forward to 2018. Today, hearing aids are at the forefront of a revolution in consumer technology – and they’re slicker than ever. They’re no longer just about addressing hearing loss– they’re enhancing every aspect of daily life. Like the Fitbit, Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, hearing aids are forging a new interface between our bodies, our devices and our homes.

Here’s a peek into the most exciting developments in smart hearing aids – also known as ‘hearables’ – and the implications for how we’ll live in the future.

So what exactly is a ‘hearable’?
Think wearable technology for your ears. Like wrist-worn fitness trackers, a hearable is a tiny computer that sits on your body – in this case, in your ear – using wireless technology to communicate with your smartphone or other devices.

Some hearables are being created by hearing aid manufacturers, with a traditional background in hearing loss. But interestingly, some other general consumer electronic brands are also getting involved, approaching the concept as a smart headphone that sits inside the ear, for individuals both with and without a hearing impairment.

Whatever their background, hearables are set to push the boundaries of what our ears can do.

Hearables will reinvent the way you hear.
Traditional hearing aids amplify sound and clarify speech, helping the user understand and communicate face-to-face and over the phone. Hearables will up the ante, providing a personalised sound quality tailored to your ears and your preferences, streaming audio direct from your smartphone or TV.

Take the Starkey Halo 2, for example – it connects with your smartphone to identify exactly where you’re located, and remembers your preferences for that particular space – whether it’s a loud restaurant, a cinema or your own living room. The ReSound LiNX is similarly smart, linking via a streaming device with your TV and delivering the audio directly into your ears, precisely to your preference.

Hearables will track your vital stats.
But the impact of hearables goes well beyond simply boosting your ability to hear. Increasing numbers of manufacturers are incorporating biometric monitoring functions into their in-ear devices, making them powerful health tools in their own right.

Sports activity trackers like the Bragi Dash are technically earbuds – but their abilities go far beyond playing music. You can automatically track your physical activity (steps, swimming, cycling), monitor your heart rate and log your calories burned. You can even use head gestures to control your settings, hands-free. Perhaps even more startling, the HaloSport headphone system provides ‘neuropriming’ for athletes by applying a mild electric field to the brain’s motor cortex, enhancing your ability to learn new physical skills.

Hearables will give you cyborg ears.
If biometrics and biofeedback features aren’t impressive enough, the next gen of hearables will scope out new dimensions in human hearing using artificial intelligence (AI).

The Pilot promises to translate speech between languages in real-time – think a tiny automatic translator sitting inside your ear canal, making it possible to understand those who don’t share your native tongue. The ProSounds H2P, by contrast, lets you go where normal ears can’t (think factories, concerts and other noisy environments), automatically blocking out damaging levels of sound while enhancing everything else.

Hearables will streamline your home.
Back on your own turf, hearable devices promise to fundamentally change your relationship with the objects around you. Oticon’s Opn is the world’s first hearing aid that directly connects with the internet and smart home tech, allowing you to go about your daily life with Jetson-esque efficiency and convenience. You can program it, for example, to automatically start your coffee machine, open the blinds, or turn on your heating when you switch it on every morning.

Hearables will redefine what a ‘hearing aid’ means.
But perhaps the most significant impact of hearables won’t be the result of a single breakthrough device – it will be the way our society looks at hearing enhancement itself.

While hearing aids have always attracted a degree of stigma – being associated with the elderly and infirm – hearables promise to reframe them from remediation, to enhancement. Less hearing aid, in other words, and more hearing boost.

In fact, some of the most interesting hearables aren’t designed to be invisible – they’re a fashion statement in their own right. The Facet by Australian group Blamey Saunders is designed as a desirable, striking piece of in-ear jewellery (that just happens to enhance your hearing), while the Peripherii are sculptural ‘smart earrings’ available in multiple colours to match your outfit.

So while yesterday’s hearing aids may have been cumbersome, unattractive and embarrassing, the hearables of tomorrow are anything but. Which means if you’re looking to enhance your hearing, the future looks – and sounds – pretty good.

For more information on hearing health, contact your local clinic.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.