Hearing Aid Trends
The hearing aid market is ripe for disruption, with the passing of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act in mid-2017, opening the door for lower cost products available for consumers with mild to moderate hearing issues. From a review of industry reports and media articles, we have identified trends and innovations in the hearing aid space from features such as remote fine-tuning, products such as smart earbuds, and channels such as startups selling direct to consumers online. These are summarized below.
PSAPs, or Personal Sound Amplification Products, have been disrupting the hearing aid market in recent years. Although categorized as consumer electronic devices rather than hearing aid devices, the properties of PSAPs make them useful for consumers with mild hearing difficulties but at a much more accessible price-point and they are considered by many as “unofficial budget hearing aids”. Manufacturers of PSAPs include startups Hearing Access World, and Sound World Solutions.
Smart earbuds, with their increasing features including “smarter ambient noise control, suppression, and isolation” along with integrated microphones and power sources are considered to be “are converging with hearing aids” according to a research analyst from Futuresource Consulting. They compete with traditional hearing aids in terms of sound, but also “are cosmetically more acceptable” in the eyes of many. Major mainstream companies are creating products, like manufacturer of audio equipment Bose has Hearphones, Samsung's Harman and Apple, who are creating ear buds working in conjunction “with existing hearing-aid manufacturers”.
Some claim that soon an app paired with earbuds will “be a sufficient substitution for a hearing aid” There are a number of apps that enhance hearing available on the Android Play store and for iOs, although they are currently very basic when compared to traditional hearing aids. One example, Fennex, works by “test[ing the] hearing in each ear and us[ing] those results to act as a personalized, adjustable amplifier” and will be updated with new features to “ help reduce unwanted noise and feedback”.
DIRECT ONLINE CONSULTATION AND SALES
A number of startups offer hearing aids direct from their website at a lower cost that traditional hearing aids, with tests conducted online rather than in person with audiologists, thus reducing the fees normally associated with the fitting of hearing aids. These include Audicus, Clearly Hearing, Embrace Hearing and Hearing Direct.
Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids allows users “to send an audio signal directly to their hearing aid’s processor”, rather than the device’s microphone, which enhances “the signal-to-noise ratio”. This is most useful when making phone calls, by directly connecting the smartphone and “let[ting users] take calls as they come in to prevent [users] from having to answer them separately” with crystal-clear sound. It’s also effective when streaming audio on laptops or other Bluetooth-enabled devices when watching movies or playing games. As well as Bluetooth, devices such as recent products from WIDEX can “connect wirelessly to any Apple product for direct streaming of phone calls and entertainment”.
DATA LOGGING AND ANALYSIS
This feature is not particularly novel however it is not yet used to its full potential, but with better understanding of data, is expected to be better utilized going forward. Hearing devices “programmed to log environment-specific data” can analyze this data to then automatically set more sophisticated programs than the basic ““quiet” and “noisy” programs” as required by the particular environment. According to a 2017 academic article “A survey and clinical evaluation of hearing aid data-logging: a valued but underutilized hearing aid fitting tool”, 88% of audiologists appreciated the data logging feature as a “useful clinical tool in the overall hearing aid fitting process” and 94% considered it helpful in participant counseling. However, in practice audiologists currently tend to neglect the feature.
Hearing aids with remote controls which allow for easy adjustment of volume or muting are another trend. If the hearing aid is Bluetooth-enabled, the remote control will likely have the ability to “quickly connect with other compatible devices” at the push of a button. While some hearing aids may have a separate device that acts as a remote control, others—such as HANSATON—are incorporating the remote control into an app, so that users are able to remotely control their hearing aid via their smartphone which they are likely to always have on hand, and so negating the need for another device to carry.
NOISE AND WIND REDUCTION
Manufacturers continue to improve on hearing aids’ ability to cut out unwanted background noise, using algorithms that identify and cancel out “ambient background buzz and sudden, loud “impulse” noises”. Sophisticated devices can offset the noise caused by wind vibrating the hearing aid microphone, which is particularly helpful for users who partake in outdoor sports and activities. These hearing aids use sensors which are sensitive to the wind force and “signal the processor to avoid amplifying it”. Manufacturers including Oticon and WIDEX have incorporated this feature into their products.
These long-lasting chargeable batteries are considered the “most promising battery technology offering 40% enhanced power as compared to conventional rechargeable batteries”, and were incorporated into devices by hearing aid manufacturers WIDEX and Phonak in 2016. These batteries can be expected to last for the duration of the hearing aid device’s use without requiring replacement, which makes them a popular choice and so expected to “witness fastest growth”.
TELEHEALTH AND REMOTE FINE-TUNING
Telehealth allows for medical appointments to be conducted without requiring an in-person appointment. A new development that came out in 2017 is remote fine-tuning of hearing aids, either cloud-based as with the ReSound LiNX 3D hearing aid from GN Hearing, or via “the world’s first telehealth application” from Signia. These appear to work on similar principles – the request to fine-tune the GN Hearing’s device is made via the ReSound Smart 3D app, and the fine-tuning is then done by “a software update to [the] smartphone via a secure cloud connection”. Similarly, the Signia device must be connected to a smartphone with internet connection, and a video call with audiologist is advised, although a voice call is also sufficient for the process.
UNDERSTANDING AS WELL AS HEARING
A technique in its very early stages, yet to be exploited in a commercially available device, allows a hearing aid to measure understanding as well as hearing. Researchers in Belgium “measure a patient’s brainwaves while they listen to a sentence” and can interpret whether the patient understood what was heard. Future applications could “adjust [the] signal based on how well [the hearing aid user is] understanding a particular speaker”.