A mirror that provides a news briefing while you clean your teeth. A coffee maker that syncs its brew time with your phone alarm (and the number of times you press snooze). A fridge that re-orders its own groceries when supplies are low and is tailored to your bookmarked recipes. Sounds like a futuristic fantasy, but it’s all just around the corner.
By 2022, a huge 35% of Australian homes will be 'smart'. That is, they’ll incorporate appliances that automate daily functions via the web with no need for a human user to switch them on and off manually. This network of connected appliances is known as the 'Internet of Things' and it’s set to change the way we live. Smart homes will be more environmentally friendly, more secure and more comfortable – not to mention much, much cooler.
Thanks to the latest integration of smart homes with hearing devices, they’ll also make life sound very different for anybody who uses a hearing aid. Here’s a look at what the Internet of Things means for hearing technology, our homes and most mind-bogglingly, our brains.
As the Internet of Things has grown, it's been inevitable that hearing aids evolve into smart hearing aids too. The free ‘If This, Then That’ (IFTTT) service is a platform that allows anybody to create their own recipes for automating various tasks using smart appliances. In the last few years, more than 450 smart devices that link with the IFTTT service have become available - think light bulbs, dishwashers, fridges, coffee makers, child monitors, music systems and even cars. Now, hearing technology is getting connected too.
Oticons Opn is a hearing aid that uses IFTTT to link with a plethora of appliances and devices - all customisable to the user's preferences. When you switch your smart hearing aid on in the morning, it can tell your coffee maker to start brewing an espresso. When you're watching TV, it can stream sound directly to your hearing aid and even dim your room lighting to match. It'll notify you if your smart doorbell rings or if your baby monitor indicates your little one is crying. Whatever your daily routine requires, you can input your own IFTTT recipe to make it run that much more smoothly.
Smart hearing aids, like Opn, become even more powerful when they’re teamed with voice recognition technologies like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. For example, with a voice command you can turn your stereo on and navigate through your playlist while music streams directly into your ears. You could listen to the morning news headlines as you stack your dishwasher, then automatically set it to run when you leave the house. Driving to a meeting, you could get GPS directions straight to your ears. You could even use voice commands to check whether you actually turned off your iron at home. Or, when you park your car at the supermarket, you could have your shopping list directly read to you.
This all sounds very convenient, perhaps, but it’s actually more than that. Smart hearing aids that streamline daily life can actually have major benefits for our brains.
Opn’s Head of Audiology, Thomas Behrens, explains people with traditional hearing aids can carry an added cognitive load when going about their daily activities. Behrens says, "it is not only the loss of the ability to hear soft sounds." Behrens continues, “it's also that the brain is struggling so much more that it's recruiting resources from parts of the brain that would normally be used on something else and that has an impact on your general function ability to function well, especially in social situations."
However, when combined with intelligent noise reduction technology, a smart hearing aid like Opn can reverse this burden on the brain. "The IFTTT network builds in a number of ease-of-use aspects", Behrens explains. "That helps lower the barriers of connecting to people, family, and friends." In other words, using your hearing aid to streamline your home – and your life outside the home – can give your brain the edge.
How times have changed. In the past, hearing loss often lead to social isolation, but thanks to the next generation of smart homes and even smarter hearing aids, people with hearing impairments are now leading the way for all of us to the future - and that future sounds crisper, clearer and more connected than ever before.