About 20% of Brits—that’s some 10 million people—will experience hearing loss over the course of their lifetime. Roughly 43,000 children in the UK are born with some type of detectable hearing loss, and by age 65, one of three people report the early stages of hearing loss. All of which is to say that hearing loss touches many corners of the world. It doesn’t discriminate. In fact, hearing loss acts with little to no preference. Anyone and everyone can, at one point or another, fall victim.
Listening for Innovation
This is precisely why the development of alternatives to hearing aids remains such an underserved and untapped market. The global market for hearing aids is expected to reach as much as £6 billion by 2020, yet a number of factors have kept innovation at a distance. The first is high prices, which usually bundle hearing aids with a service plan designed by audiologists. Units tend to go for as much as £390 a device, a significant markup that is usually tethered to the service plan that accompanies the hearing aid. Additionally, a hyper-localized market has often made competition scarce. The market for hearing aids has been limited by sheer force, thus keeping prices high and advancements low.
The second hiccup has always been in the classification of the device, both in the industry at large and in the public imagination. Many consider hearing aids to be medical devices, outfitted for the elderly and improbably archaic. Yet the key to reconfiguring hearing aids might rely on their reclassification as something more akin to wearable technology rather than a specialty medical device. It might sound like some of this is just PR spin: a hearing aid as an enviable gadget instead of a needed medical solution. But there is a grey area of consumer that the specialised market has all but forgotten. Like reading glasses, the need for hearing aids can be location specific, for example trying to make our conversation in a loud bar or during telecommunication meetings in the office.
The current iteration of the hearing aid is a severely limited product, but there is definitely something that can be learned from the development of new personal audio equipment, like headphones and earbuds. Typical hearing aids are designed to be smaller than the standard hearable device (the Dash by Bragi and the recent Apple AirPods, for example). Companies like Starkey Hearing Technology have debuted hearing aids in the last couple years, with technology that has since been integrated into products like FitBit and the AirPods. These devices prioritise the compression of incoming audio over lightweight, low energy devices. Hearing aids meanwhile are able to run constantly for 18 hours a day for an entire week on a single set of batteries — imagine what that could mean for advancements in rechargeable aids! Now apply that same technology to the market’s Bluetooth earbuds, and you have a cross-breeding between the medical world and the tech sphere.
This is all in anticipation of a future that seems to be on the horizon. Silicon Valley has pushed for more audio-based innovations in the last two years, turning in-ear computing into a viable way to interface with a rapidly digitising world. Voice-activated AI, like Google Assistant, Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana take the phrase “hands-off approach” to a new level. We might be nearing a future in which screens and constant image-based design will seem as positively archaic as the hearing aid does now. But this move into audio-friendly tech means that there is a well of untapped work to be done on devices that have existed in the public for decades. If tech aims to heed the call of the future, as well as quell the concerns of the present, the lean towards audio is as good a reason as any to rethink and re-energize the modern hearing aid, ensuring that the utopian ideals of tomorrow come in loud and clear.