“The future could be so bright we will need to wear shades”


Audiology Worldnews EUHA 2017
© liusishan - iStock

Geoffrey Cooling, regular contributor to Audio Infos United Kingdom, shares with us some insights on how technology could transform the industry. As usual, the expert invites us to welcome new challenges with a smile.

Sensor sets, hearing aids & use cases

I and many others have discussed the convergence of hearables and hearing aids over the last few years. In many articles I have discussed how adding simple sensor sets to hearing aids would change the use case of hearing aids. I believe that with the intelligent use of sensor sets and a wider and general health-focused strategy we can change the use case forever. Not only the use case, but the place of the profession. I believe that this strategy would put us at the centre of primary healthcare.

Geriatric care is a huge logistical and financial pressure on western governments and health systems, in particular public nursing home care. When nursing home care is being payed privately, it is a huge financial burden on the person and their family. On-board sensors in hearing aids combined with simplified and secure communication protocols could help to keep older people at home for longer. I don’t think that I am the only one who has thought about this.

Extending the use

Delivering biometric assessment functionality would extend the use case for hearing aids. If properly designed it could provide both real-time data and record ongoing data of a user’s general health. It would allow the profession and the industry to secure their place in the future. It would make hearing aids a multi-dimensional medical device and allow hearing healthcare professionals to become involved in the wider primary healthcare field. However, it does open up further considerations.

Data communication and security

All health related data needs to be secure; secure storage of the data is just one concern. Data communication in real time, in a secure manner is also a very big concern. One of the keys to moving forward with this type of strategy is an open agreed and standardised communication protocol across manufacturers.

While we envisage and have delivered communication between hearing aids and smartphones, what about hearing aids and other medical devices? Or hearing aids and medical monitoring software platforms? Moving forward we will need an agreed data communication protocol that would allow hearing aids to talk to other medical devices. This brings into focus the Made-For-iPhone, Made-For-Android conundrum. Unfortunately, the manufacturers of hearing aids cannot deliver a direct-to-Android hearing aid in the same way that they have a Made-For-iPhone hearing aid.

The fault is Android’s

As long as Android developers see no value in a deeper integration with hearing aids, we will never have direct audio streaming from Android phones. Phonak have recently and quite successfully gone down a slightly different route with their Made-For-Any-Phone device. However, it is not without trade-offs. While the user can take phone calls with ease, the hearing aids do not offer stereo streaming of audio such as music, audio books or anything else from a mobile phone.

However, and in general, for pure data exchange, the current systems are robust enough, but for possible audio alerts we will need to be innovative. By that I mean that current Bluetooth protocols will allow pure data exchange between hearing aids and smartphones. We need to look no further than the type of data exchange that is currently used by Fitbit, Jawbone or many other health wearable manufacturers for inspiration. Audio alerts for the user, could be stored on-board the hearing aids, in exactly the same way that spoken alerts are currently stored on Widex hearing aids and many others.

It is a simple case of understanding what the trigger for the alert will be and what best language to use. I don’t believe it is beyond the technical abilities of manufacturers to take data from an accelerometer and use it as a trigger for a message such as “you seem unbalanced, please sit down”.

Offloading the strain

The smartphone in our pocket is in fact an amazing computing device, a device that manufacturers could begin to take advantage of. As the data connection becomes more solid and 5G mobile internet becomes more ubiquitous perhaps we can offload some of the processing to the phone. I spoke to Dave Fabry of ReSound recently and he said that to a certain extent we already are with the app infrastructure that many manufacturers use.

Artificial intelligence

But maybe we could go further than that, perhaps there could be a future where we use cloud-based artificial intelligence to continuously monitor both the function of the aid and the sound environment, automatically changing how the aid works to continually improve performance. Unitron is using a cloud-based system right now to understand user experience, how difficult would it be to take that system one step forward and ensure that the communication goes both ways?

What about dropping the phone?

To move forward with many of these possibilities we need a solid source of always-on communication. At the moment, the ideal platform for that is the smartphone in everyone’s pocket. But what if advances in battery and chipset technology allowed us to dump the phone? What if the future hearing aids came with a micro sim card?

In-depth communication systems

What if we placed the phone hardware on the chipset, integrated it with our hearing aid designs? What if we decided that in fact we would also include fl ash memory? Delivered an integrated communication system with an additional audio-playing facility?

Will there be anything special this year?

Naturally. This year, delegates will be able to use our online ticket shop for the first time. Tickets can be bought from home, reducing queuing times at the ticket counters, and giving delegates more time to spend at the conference and trade exhibition.

Hear better, make calls, monitor your health and fitness and store some audio to while away your idle time. Because that is what we deal in, delivering the ability to communicate, what’s to stop us taking that one step forward?

Wireless charging, even down to IIC

Power and size is a stumbling block at the minute, but that might not be the case for long. I recently spoke to company in Canada that think their system is ideal to deliver wireless charging to hearing aids even down to IIC. They have a system that they believe will not add much weight or volume. It will also offer complete freedom in charging, no lining up contacts, no slotting them into ports, just drop them on a charging mat or into a charging box.

A breakthrough in battery power or innovation in sensor sets or communication chips could change everything. The future could be so bright we will need to wear shades, the future is only limited by the imagination of the people involved in the industry and the willingness of the profession to accept and embrace change.

Photos: EDP Santé