Hearing Aids Enter The ‘Autonomous Listening’ Age

By Yuri Teshler, Patrick Moorhead - October 27, 2016
There are many hearing aid manufactures like Miracle-Ear, Beltone, ReSound, ZOUNDS and Oticon, but the Signia Pure hearing aids are a revelation in technology-driven innovation. Much like Tesla Motors is pushing the limits on autonomous driving, Signia is exploring the limits of autonomous ‘listening’. It could be the start of a truly remarkable tech revolution for people dependent upon technology to help them with everyday tasks. An Industry Ripe for Disruption primax-situation-23_woman-easytek_950x1694px (Photo supplied by Signia) For people like me, who use hearing aids, the world around us is changing dramatically. Hearing aids have always existed at the intersection of three very different markets: healthcare, technology and consumer experience. While hearing aids are clearly designed to help compensate for a loss of hearing, they use technology to achieve this, and since you have to wear them, they are clearly very tightly associated with consumer experience. Sadly, there has always been some compromise between these three experiences that has made the quest for ideal hearing aids less than…ideal. Until now. I’ll get to the reveal in a minute, but first some background. Traditionally there are three factors that those of us with a hearing impairment use to evaluate hearing aids: size, comprehension and comfort. Every five or so years, the size of hearing aids gets smaller. Advances in comprehension technology happen about once every decade. Of course, if it is not comfortable to wear, you’re going to take them off so it does not matter how good the comprehension is. So while we look at these factors, almost every decision about purchasing new hearing aids becomes a trade-off. Go for comfort, and lose comprehension and gain size. Go for smaller size, and lose comprehension and comfort. With everyone walking around with a mobile phone, there is a new challenge that hearing impaired folks didn’t have a decade ago, and that is connectivity. For example, when I use my mobile phone, I must take my hearing aids out, put on my earbuds and then reverse the process when the call is done. Anyone who’s ever juggled prescription glasses and sunglasses understands this hassle, too. Thankfully, rapid changes in technology and consumer expectations are making connectivity easier, and they are making new usage models and experiences possible. In the same way the Tesla cars are starting to deliver on the promise of autonomous driving, the next generation of hearing aids are starting to deliver on the promise of ‘autonomous listening’ hearing aids. Focused Hearing accessories_echarger_easytek_minipocket_950x500px (Photo supplied by Signia) I have severe hearing loss in one ear and close to severe in the other ear, so if I do not have my hearing aids on I am pretty much cut out of most conversations, unless it’s one-on-one. Even with hearing aids, if there is more than one person in the conversation, it becomes very difficult to hear where the sound is actually coming from or to comprehend what is being said, unless it is happening directly in front of me. Going out to dinner or walking down the road with someone is very hard, unless I concentrate almost exclusively on hearing the conversation. That’s because most hearing aid microphones pull in all sound, and the filtering technology is not well thought out or even adjustable beyond a high level filter. I first got hearing aids when I was studying in New York City in the 1980s. I would have to take them off as soon as I left the classroom because the environment literally flooded me with sound. Being mostly deaf, I am used to a certain peacefulness, but all of a sudden the noise became overwhelming. That meant I could not wear them on the streets or in the subway, because it caused uncomfortable sensory overload. With hearing aids, everything is amplified, so it is always difficult to isolate noises, especially in a city or crowded setting. So while my comprehension of what I was hearing may have been low, it was often considerably better than hearing nothing. My first hearing aids were quite large devices that sat behind my ears, and the biggest problem was comfort. So while they gave me some comprehension, I couldn’t wear them for a long time because it would be painful on my ears. Signia’s Pure Recently, I have been using the Pure hearing aid system, which is available under the brand Signia, and they have dramatically changed the way I hear. While many manufacturers have worked on features like sound isolation, these hearing aids provide a whole new experience in enabling you to focus your listening. The first thing I noticed when I put them on is that they are remarkably quiet. They don’t amplify everything, and they basically do an amazing job filtering out noise. The processor in these hearing aids is literally a decade more advanced than the ReSound Linux system of in-ear hearing aids I was using before and that are only a few years old. Signia Pures do the best job of any hearing aid that I have ever worn to dig into speech recognition and filter out the background noises. So comprehension with Signia Pure is extremely high. The ones I wear are over-the-ear hearing aid models, because they are more comfortable than in-the-ear models and they have four microphones. They are also extremely light, and I’ve been able to wear them all day long. The piece that goes into your ear is half the size of the hearing aids I had a decade ago, so they are enormously more comfortable. I also think these Signia Pure aids have reduced my tendency toward ear infections over the last four months, because their smaller size allows more in-ear breathability. Signia Pures have rechargeable batteries. Given that my day after starts at 5 or 6am, the rechargeable batteries tended to only to last for 12 hours, which was 6pm for me. In the end I changed to regular batteries, they last for more than a week. Being able to seamlessly use these hearing aids throughout the entire day is more important to me than rechargability. Imagine, for example, having to take off your glasses halfway through the day to charge them so you can continue to see. It would not be a good user experience. A typical day for me includes streaming audio, participating in conference calls and meetings, and chatting with family, friends and colleagues. This is the greatest leap of any product I’ve ever worn. The Signia Pures also support the Signia easyTek device. This necklace-type device is the interface that allow me to pair my hearing aids with a smart phone, or a computer, or a television through Bluetooth. The major benefit is that it allows me to talk or listen to my phone without having to put on headphones. This has transformed the way I use my smartphone when I’m listening to books, listening to podcasts, talking on the phone and listening to music. It is the combination of these technologies—smart hearing aids and a smart interface—that does something new and groundbreaking for me. In the same way a Tesla car enables autonomous driving by coming technologies like cruise-control, camera and intelligence, Signia Pure hearing aids combine technology and user experience to help integrate more natural hearing back into your life. Pure is constantly listening and adjusting to maximize your experience. For example, I often cook dinner while listening to a podcast. With traditional hearing aids, when I turn on the vent fan, I would have to turn up my hearing aids. With Pure, the volume is automatically increased to maintain comprehension. It’s like cruise control for your listening. I have never experienced another product that does this so well. easyTek and touchControl applications Another significant step forward is the ability to control my hearing aids through both the easyTek application or the touchControl application on my mobile phone. These applications allow me to fine-tune my hearing experience. You can set up modes for loud environments, quiet environments, conference rooms or whatever environments you find yourself in. You select these modes from your phone. You can also program a rocker panel in one of the hearing aids to do this if you do not want to use the phone application. Another reason I was so interested in testing these hearing aids is that they have done something no other hearing aid has done, and that is mastering sound isolation. Signia Pures have four microphones, and the phone app allows me to shift the sound in four directions. So if I am sitting next to somebody at the dinner table that I want to talk to on my left, I can shift the sound to my left and isolate the other 270 degrees. If someone is in front of me and that is the person I want to listen to, I can shift my sound to the front and isolate all the other places. That has made a profound impact on my speech comprehension ability. It’s just incredible. For the first time I can actually start to focus my hearing. It has actually made listening less mentally and physically tiring. However, the implementation of this needs to be refined. The UI on the app is less than ideal. I often have to go to multiple screens to do basic functions, but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is that application times out every ten minutes. So, when I’m using my focused hearing, say at dinner with somebody that’s sitting across from me, I have to constantly go back to the application to refocus the hearing. It’s actually rude to have your smartphone sitting on the table where you’re constantly clicking it to reset it every few minutes. When you think of hearing aids, you think of an older population that may not be technologically savvy, so having it time out frequently may make sense. But I want the ability to manually override this, because I know exactly what I want to focus on, and I get frustrated when the system resets itself. This auto-reset was such an aggravating experience that I’ve stopped using it even though it’s incredibly useful. Next on My Wish List: Redefining the Fitting Experience Typically, when you go to fit the hearing aid, it’s a series of three to six or more visits with an audiologist. The first time they do a hearing test, then they do a fitting and have some basic sound adjustments programmed in, and then you use them for a week or two weeks, to see how well the programs and the aids are working for you. If you are getting feedback or too much wind noise for instance, there is a need for more adjustments. This can require even more visits. The more features hearing aids have, the more sophisticated sound is, which can layer on more and more visits. All of this requires time out of your schedule and visits to an audio professional. For certain, there is a need for a professional audiologist to work through your specific hearing loss and set the hearing aids to their most ideal range. But a lot of the adjustments and customization that the audiologist currently has to do could easily be done by the wearer, if the experience was redesigned a bit. I’m hoping with this next generation of aids and applications like easyTek, there could be a better way. For example, if I want the rocker panel on my left hearing aid to change the program setting or I want the rocker panel on my right hearing aid to control volume–two things that should be pretty easy to do—why do I have to book an appointment with an audiologist? These changes do not really affect the way the hearing aids work and should be settings that I can make as a customer, maybe from the touchControl application. It is not a good consumer experience to take two hours out of my day—and half an hour out of an audiologist’s day—for something I really should be able to do myself. Summary I would score the Signia Pure hearing aids a 9 out of 10. They just work well all the time. The phone touchControl application would probably score more like a 7, because while the connectivity is great, the automatic time-out doesn’t make sense to me. If you are somebody who is 65 and older, as I have said, these are then ‘autonomous driving’ hearing aids. You put them in and forget about them. For these users, these will be the best hearing device they have probably ever used and they will be able to use them through their whole day. Their ability to self-adjust will be a revelation to those stuck fiddling with their volume control every time sound levels change. If you’re younger than 55 you’re going to be fairly sophisticated in using technology and may have a higher need for connectivity. Through the easyTek system, Bluetooth works seamlessly, meaning I can connect them to my Apple or Google phone, tablet and PC. What I love about this: I can have my phone in my pocket, and it’s hands-free. As the technology continues to improve, so will the consumer experience. One day, my hearing aids will also start to understand the context in which I am hearing and make the appropriate change. If they know I’m on the street, they know I live in New York City, and know I’m in the subway, they should adjust their settings accordingly. If I’m riding a bike, they should help reduce wind noise and then they should be able to help me in listening for things that can knock me off my bike. It would be nice to have technology that goes beyond sound that creates an entirely new experience. Maybe one day they will know I am in a foreign country and help me by simultaneously translating everything into English for me. This would extend the hearing aids from tools of comprehension to tools of understanding.
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Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.