July 15, 2020
By combining a discreet design with low-power connectivity and reliability, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids have the capacity to transform the hearing-correction industry.
According to the World Health Organization, over five percent of the world’s population — some 466 million people — suffers from hearing loss. In the United States, approximately 15 percent of adults aged 18 and over — roughly 37.5 million Americans — report having trouble hearing. This is a staggering number of people, many of whom want and need effective and discreet hearing support.
Technology has long been used to help those who struggle with hearing loss. If ear trumpets, the Akouphone, and vacuum tube hearing aids don’t sound familiar to you, they certainly did to earlier generations of people who sought innovative hearing solutions. Each new era has brought significant tech-driven improvements to hearing correction. By the 1990s, digital hearing aids had been introduced, and they have since become the industry standard.
But the next step in the long evolutionary arc of hearing-correction technology may well rest with an innovation that is already familiar to most of us: Bluetooth.
Bluetooth-compatible hearing aids were first introduced in 2006. Designed to connect with smartphones, they required the use of a streamer, or hearing aid Bluetooth adapter, to transmit sound from the phones to the hearing aids themselves. As compared to non-Bluetooth hearing aids, Bluetooth Classic-enabled hearing aids offer individuals with hearing loss a range of benefits, including (but by no means limited to):
However, because users were understandably reluctant to carry around an additional — and quite conspicuous — device wherever they went, these hearing aids never caught on.
In 2011, a new specification of Bluetooth called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) was introduced. This novel technology was designed to minimize power consumption while maintaining communication range and quality. By integrating it into the field of hearing correction, developers were able to produce BLE-compatible hearing aids capable of connecting to a variety of devices without the intermediation of an adapter. By combining a discreet design with low power connectivity and reliability, these new hearing aids have the capacity to transform the hearing-correction industry — and with it, the lives of millions of people around the world.
As compared to Bluetooth Classic-enabled hearing aids, BLE-enabled hearing aids provide benefits including:
Thanks in large part to Apple’s and Google’s recent entry into the market, the popularity of Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids has expanded dramatically in the wake of the proliferation of BLE.
In 2013, Apple used the launch of iOS 7 to make its devices friendlier to the hearing impaired, introducing its Made for iPhone hearing program as part of its broader accessibility initiatives. Similar to its AirPods, Apple’s Made-for-iPhone hearing aids are designed to provide optimal sound when paired with iOS devices, including iPhones and iPads. By integrating BLE with a proprietary protocol, Apple has enabled users to control their hearing aids discreetly with their Apple devices and/or preconfigure their hearing aids’ settings for particular times and places.
Additionally, Apple’s new hearing aids include a “find my hearing aid” feature and support integration with Live Listen, a program that turns an iPhone or iPad into a remote microphone that transmits sound to the hearing aids. For individuals with hearing loss who wish to converse in loud public places, this program can make all the difference.
In response, Google has partnered with GN Hearing to develop hearing aid support for Android. Google’s software leverages BLE to allow users to connect their hearing aids to Android devices, providing them with high-quality sound without significantly compromising their devices’ battery life. Considering that 85 percent of the world’s smartphones run on Android, this is a momentous development.
Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids have come a long way in recent years, and the unveiling of Bluetooth LE Audio in January promises a new wave of innovative features for the hearing-impaired to take advantage of.
For instance, Bluetooth LE Audio is multistream, meaning it allows for the transmission of multiple independent, synchronized audio streams between an audio source device and one (or more) audio sink devices. This latest specification of Bluetooth also features broadcast audio, meaning an audio source device can broadcast one or more audio streams to an unlimited number of audio sink devices.
“With direct streaming of audio signals in noisy situations, Bluetooth LE Audio helps us to provide better service for users of hearing instruments, such as hearing aids and implants,” explains European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association Secretary-General Stefan Zimmer. “We expect the simplicity and affordability of this solution to lead to higher popularity and coverage compared to previous systems.”
These exciting advances notwithstanding, even more can be done to provide hearing aid wearers with exceptional Bluetooth-driven experiences. Software can be more integrative, smarter, and more inclusive of new features. Hearing aid manufacturers also need to ensure they’re building their products using the best available hardware.
At Telink, we’re proud to provide that hardware. Our compact, multimode SoCs support multiple protocols — including Bluetooth Low Energy — improving interoperability while reducing manufacturers’ lock-in risk. They also cost less than many single-protocol chips, making them a perfect option for hearing aid manufacturers looking to revolutionize hearing-correction technology at scale.