Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hearing aids are the hot new connected gadgets


Those voices in my head? They’re not signals from space or instructions from the CIA. More likely, it’s probably my wife calling with dinner plans, the folks on the Freakonomics podcast, or a song from my James McMurtry playlist.

And although the sound arrives over a Bluetooth channel, it’s not coming through headphones, it's piped into my ears through hearing aids.

Yes, I’m one of the estimated 30 million Americans who have some level of hearing loss. I blame mine on years of loud rock ’n roll concerts.

Wearing hearing aids make headphones problematic: there's no room for earbuds and over-the-ear pads can cause feedback and muffle nearby sounds, some of them potentially dangerous. Why, I often wondered, haven’t the brainiacs in the electronics industry come up with a way to build Bluetooth technology into hearing aids?

That marriage finally took place a couple of years ago. Now there are several medical-grade hearing aids that that can be controlled and customized from a mobile app and deliver streaming audio. For the past two months, I’ve worn a pair of Halo 2 hearing aids provided by Starkey Hearing Technologies, a Minnesota company with a 50-year history of making hearing aids. In 2014, Starkey launched a Made for iPhone hearing aid with a mobile app and streaming capability.

Earlier this month at CES, I checked out offerings from two other hearing aid makers: ReSound and Oticon. ReSound shares an ownership umbrella with Jabra headphones and Oticon was a pioneer in using digital processors in hearing aids.

Unlike the Bluetooth hearing boosters that are sold through retail outlets, the Starkey, ReSound and Oticon aids are meant to be provided by an audiologist, a licensed dispenser or a doctor. When I got the Halo 2 aids, they came with professional assistance that included a hearing check and specific tuning for my personal hearing profile.

But once the devices were in place, I could use a Starkey app called TruLink to control the devices. The app will raise or lower volume levels or cycle through default settings for different listening environments such as a restaurant, a car or for music.

Custom settings can also be created and stored as Memories for additional situations. For example, I might want a very wide and sensitive setting for a quiet walk in the woods, or one that focuses on the voice that is closest to me. That’s helpful at a party or public event.

A few days ago, I used the app to focus on the speaker at the a business conference. He was standing at a podium about 30 feet away at the front of the room. I heard an immediate improvement. Another way to tune in to a speaker or a conversation is to turn the iPhone into a remote microphone. At a group dinner at a noisy restaurant, I put my phone closer to my wife, who was sitting two seats away. That trick worked pretty well, though I wasn’t thrilled about putting my phone out of reach.

The sound amplification I get with the Halo 2 is as good and often better than my experience with the digital hearing aids that I bought a few years ago. I’ve had fewer situations where I’m unsure of the direction a sound is coming from or straining to adequately hear a someone who speaks softly.

Starkey says their aids incorporate technology that tackle both of those issues. It automatically compresses frequencies that are not usually generated with speech, and it says the Halo 2 aids communicate better with each other, which helps the wearer more easily identify  the direction a sound is coming from.

The Bluetooth streaming has been an added bonus. My iPhone 7 paired smoothly with the hearing aids using the Accessibility option for hearing devices. Now Hearing Aids appears as a listening option when I get a phone call, play music, watch a video or listen to an audio book or podcast. I’ve had a few complaints from callers who said they couldn’t hear me very well when I’m talking through the hearing aids, but most people couldn’t tell any difference.

One feature on my Bluetooth headphones that I sometimes miss is the ability to accept an incoming call by pressing a button on one of the ear pads. The Halo hearing aids don’t have a similar button, but they do cooperate nicely with the Apple Watch, so I can accept a call by tapping my wrist.

The TruLink app has an extension for the watch, but its feature list is pretty short. I can cycle through the Memories settings or adjust the hearing aid volume, but only if the companion app on the phone is open.

ReSound LiNX2
ReSound and Oticon have also linked their smart hearing aids to mobile apps and other accessory devices. The ReSound Smart app is available for both Apple and Android devices and the iOS version works with the Apple Watch.

The app contains default settings for different environments, including restaurants or outdoors, and it allows users to create and store custom settings. It will also help users find misplaced hearing aids.

Other ReSound accessories include two wireless microphones. One is a clip-on mic that you would give to a family member, teacher or anyone you want to hear clearly. The other is a multi-directional mic that you might place on a table to tune in a group of people. ReSound also makes a streaming box that can be connected to a TV set or music source.

Like the other hearing aid apps, Oticon’s ON app for Apple devices will control volume levels and switch settings for its Opn model hearing aids. It also helps find lost hearing aids and it offers some controls through the Apple Watch.

Oticon Opn
But Oticon dives a bit deeper into the Internet of Things, the networks that that link everything from light switches to kitchen appliances. Oticon says its Opn model is the first hearing aid that will also interact with smart home devices such doorbells, thermostats and security systems.

The Opn hearing aid supports connections made through an Internet service called IFTTT (If This Then That) where users create simple scripts to send orders to smart devices.

For example if an event occurs (someone rings the doorbell or a smoke detector goes off), that triggers a response (a verbal message to your hearing aids or a text alert to a caregiver).

The IFTTT option is one more step toward a good example of how modern hearing aids are evolving well beyond the tiny amplifiers that our grandparents wore. Today they are miniature computers that keep us plugged into the digital world around us.


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Follow me on Twitter @ricmanning and read my technology columns at My Well Being.


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