Long before French neurologist Paul Nogiere developed auriculotherapy – ear acupuncture – in the 1950s, many regarded the ear as a sensory gateway to more than just hearing. Now, “hearables” are emerging as a new class of in-ear technology that combines the best health tracking capabilities of wearables, like fitness trackers and smartwatches, with the superior sound quality of high-end ear buds.
Whether you call them “hearables,” “audio augmented reality” or simply “hearing enhancement” devices – terms preferred by the co-founder and executive chairman of Doppler Labs, Fritz Lanman, the most basic goal is to give the wearer an enhanced ability to control audio in a live environment, like a restaurant or a party. Doppler suggests its new product, Here Active Listening System, could enable its wearer to suppress the cry of a baby on an airplane or increase the bass at a concert, or deliver computer-based alerts better aurally than visually through devices like Google Glass or the Apple Watch.
That’s just the start. A more feature-rich hearable, The Dash, has been positioned as the “world’s first wireless smart in ear headphones” and promises to offer such capabilities as:
- 4 GB music player
- Bluetooth headset
- Fitness tracker
- Heart rate monitor
- Ear bone microphone, and
- Gesture interface.
Besides providing heart rate and calories burned, The Dash will measure other body vitals such as heart rate variability, oxygen saturation and body temperature.
A Swiss army knife for the ears sounds impressive, but what about hearing aids? With all the “sizzle” of in-ear apps that can do whatever a smartphone can do, where is the “steak” of compensating for hearing loss and supporting good hearing health? For the answer, we can look to what happened as new technologies emerged around eyeglasses and cell phones.
First, a person with vision problems can’t simultaneously wear prescription lensed glasses and those without prescription lenses. Realistically, there can’t be two different devices for those needing a daily-wear sensory prosthetic. Just like Google Glass wearers with vision problems need prescription lenses to integrate with their augmented reality experience, so too, will hearing aid wearers need the correct hearing aid prescription programmed into a hearable device to correct their specific hearing loss. That requires an audiologist to evaluate hearing sensitivity, as well as any other hearing conditions, through an audiogram or other diagnostic testing.
Second, as we have seen both with smartphones and smartwatches, the core function – whether telephonic or telling time – benefit from the other converging technologies built into the device. The hearing aid function of the hearable doesn’t get lost; it just gets smarter. What exact form that will take depends on factors like technological advances, cost, and market demand.
Third, for those who want just plain hearing aids, we can look to “disposable” mobile phones for a likely analog. Currently available “personal sound amplification products” (PSAPs) serve those who want occasional, recreational in-ear sound amplification. They are inexpensive compared to hearing aids, but they are not designed to compensate for specific types of hearing loss, including issues of distortion. Even PSAP manufacturers admit that their products are not a substitute for going to a hearing health professional.
Technology advances almost always extend both upstream and downstream as new products are developed. Just as good old-fashioned flip phones can now be purchased for less than $20, with texting and data capabilities, we can expect the next generation PSAPs gradually to replace today’s standard-feature hearing aids at a modest price.
Technological innovation will allow components that now need to be held in our hands or strapped to our wrists to virtually disappear into an ear canal. Our ears then will become a more comprehensive and sophisticated sensory gateway for how we interact with, and augment, information our bodies and our daily environment. No more looking down at our hands or wrists to communicate, navigate or acquire information. A new discerning in-ear narration will talk to us while simultaneously freeing up our hands and eyes as we touch, see and hear the world around us as never before.