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Hearing Aids Can Serve a Second Purpose—As Wireless Speakers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“Never in my audiology career has something so simple helped so many people at so little cost.”

“I can’t stop smiling. . . . I could understand every word. . . .  What an overwhelming experience.”

“I am not exaggerating when I tell you that at EVERY [theatrical] performance we get big thank you’s.  We have subscribers who are returning and telling their friends.”

These reports—from an audiologist, a person with hearing loss, and the business manager of an 882-seat Chicago theatre—aptly describe my response when first experiencing the hearing assistance technology to which they each refer.  As I sat, unable to understand the words reverberating off the ancient stone walls of Scotland’s Iona Abbey, my wife noticed a hearing assistance sign with a “T” and nudged me to turn on the “telecoils” in my new aids.  The instant result was a stunningly clear voice, speaking from the center of my head.  I was on the verge of tears.

A TV room hearing loop

A TV room hearing loop

In our subsequent UK sojourns, I have experienced the spread of this “hearing loop” technology—to auditoriums, churches and cathedrals, and to tens of thousands of transient venues, including ticket and post office windows, and all London taxis.  Although specific applications need professional design, the gist of the technology is simple:  an amplifier picks up sound from a PA system and transforms it into a magnetic signal sent by a wire loop surrounding an audience.  The telecoil—an inexpensive magnetic sensor in most of today’s new hearing aids and all new cochlear implants—receives this signal, enabling the hearing instrument to become an in-the-ear speaker that broadcasts sound appropriate to each user’s needs.  And I bet you didn’t know this:  all U.S. landline phones, and select mobile phones (including my new iPhone5), also are “hearing aid compatible.” That means they can similarly transmit improved sound via magnetic communication with telecoil-equipped hearing instruments.

Back home, I installed hearing loops in my home and office.  Voila!, my TV and phone now broadcast wonderfully clear sound through my aids (and binaural phone listening is vastly superior to one-eared listening).

Other modern wireless technologies also connect hearing aid wearers to their TVs and phones.  When connected to a TV or stereo, a transmitter can “stream”  audio directly to one’s hearing aids.  When synced with one’s phone, conversation can be broadcast to both hearing aids.  Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids can receive sound from a host of Bluetooth devices, including phone and computer.

So, people often wonder, might Bluetooth or other streaming wireless technologies enable assistive listening in public venues—and without the expense of a running a loop wire?

Grand Rapids Airport has looped both its concourses and all individual gate areas.  This enables hearing instruments to serve as wireless, in-the-ear speakers that broadcast announcements.

Grand Rapids Airport has looped both its concourses and all individual gate areas. This enables hearing instruments to serve as wireless, in-the-ear speakers that broadcast announcements.

Alas, each hearing aid company offers a different proprietary wireless technology.  The one universal wireless receiver—which anyone can use, no matter what their hearing aid brand or what country they are in—is the humble telecoil (a part that costs hearing aid companies about $2).  Moreover, unlike Bluetooth’s battery-sucking demands, the telecoil requires zero power. With today’s popular “open-fitting” hearing aids, a person may hear both immediate sound from a TV and slightly delayed Bluetooth sound, creating an annoying echo.  And unlike Bluetooth and other wireless technologies that serve only small areas, hearing loops work in places both small and big.

Indeed, the accelerating move to hearing loops in the USA—sparked by local and national hearing loss associations and now supported by a new cottage industry of hearing loop vendors and installers—has led to thousands of newly looped venues.  Some venues are small, such as New York City’s 450 subway booths and all its future taxis.  Some are bigger, such as auditoriums and worship places.  And some are huge, such as airports and Michigan State University’s basketball arena.

Are hearing loops the final word in assistive listening?  Likely not.  But the challenge for hearing technologists is to make any alternative technology similarly

  • simple for people of all ages to operate (without needing to pair and charge special equipment),
  • affordable, without adding to the cost of already-expensive hearing instruments,
  • available with nearly all hearing instruments,
  • energy efficient,
  • scalable, with applications in public spaces both small and vast, and
  • universal, with the same signal serving everyone, no matter their location or hearing instrument manufacturer.

Given a future with a universal wireless receiver (for now, a telecoil) in virtually every hearing instrument, and given the continuing spread of hearing aid compatible assistive listening, we can envision a better future for Americans with hearing loss—a future in which hearing aids will serve as customized, wireless speakers in all sorts of public venues.  That, methinks, would be a future where doubly useful hearing aids for challenged ears would be as commonplace as glasses for challenged eyes.

 

David G. Myers About the Author: David G. Myers is a Hope College professor of psychology, author of 17 books (including textbooks of introductory and social psychology), and a past contributor to Scientific American and Scientific American: Mind. He is a person with hearing loss and a newly appointed member of the advisory council of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Community Disorders. Myers is also the host of the nonprofit informational website www.hearingloop.org.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. jaythakar 6:06 pm 06/6/2013

    Dr. Myers: As a member of the advisory council of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Community Disorders can you please inquire why the hearing aids are so expensive? The material cost for manufacturing does not seem to be so prohibitory. Is this just business exploitation?

    Link to this
  2. 2. hanRay 1:10 pm 08/2/2013

    Dear JaytheKar
    I have in my career been both a hearing aid manufacturer and retailer – sometimes at the same time!
    You raise a question often asked.
    Below is an example of a product from bits to sale.
    The manufacturing cost of a hearing aid:
    Components are $50.
    The labor cost is $100
    Overheads $50 (rent/rates/services etc)
    Development $50
    Manufacturers profit $100
    Total = $350
    The selling cost of a hearing aid.
    Selling price $1500
    Product cost $350
    Advertising $35
    Overheads $100 (rent/rates/services/insurance etc)
    Staff $100
    Testing fee $75
    Fitting fee $75
    Check up fee $75
    Equipment updates/calibration $30
    Total $840
    Pre tax profit $660
    Hope that helps.
    Regards

    Link to this

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