Review & Q&A: The first IoT enabled hearing aid
Wireless Technologies

Review & Q&A: The first IoT enabled hearing aid

The internet of things is often ridiculed over the seemingly foolish and unnecessary desire to connect things. Do we really need a connected fridge? Toaster? Coffee-maker? Some smart things are quite frankly, daft, but there are others that make some sense. (I’m a big fan of this idea for example.) Now connected hearing aids might not be the first device you think of when you consider the Internet of Things, but as someone who’s now tried them… the concept is a smart one. (See what I did there…)

My world is quieter than most, and I confess that’s sometimes a blessing. But more often than not it’s frustrating; not being able to hear colleagues when they’re talking to me, relying on subtitles to understand what’s happening on screen, struggling to follow the conversation when out with friends in a restaurant.

My previous, NHS digital hearing aids helped a bit, but in group situations they were a nightmare. Do you remember as child, being told that if you held a shell to your ear you could hear the sea? That’s what they were like.

Oticon’s latest hearing aid offering, Opn™ miniRITE , is like a super-charged hearing aid, and most interestingly, is the first that connects to the internet via the If This Then That network. So of course, I wanted to try them out…

 

A personal review of Oticon’s latest hearing aid

The Oticon Opn hearing aids feel very different to my previous hearing aids – I’m not used to the dome being in my ear canal as my previous hearing aids were BTE [Behind The Ear] devices. After getting used the initial ‘itch’ of having the domes in my ear canal, these are much lighter and more comfortable to wear than my previous ones. They’re also a lot more discrete.

Speech is significantly clearer and I’m more aware of individual sounds rather than a general buzz of background noises. Who knew keyboards clicks were so loud?! I have often avoided situations with large groups of people where there was a lot of background noise as I just couldn’t follow the conversation. Now I don’t have to – which frankly, is a revelation! And, my general awareness of peripheral sounds, and therefore my awareness of what’s happening around me, is improved – for example if I’m walking home I can now hear if there’s someone behind me, rather than having to check. My only criticism in fact, having now been using the Opn for around six weeks, is that I miss having the ability to switch in to a hearing loop – which can be handy in places like banks and post offices.

As well as the processing improvements which Oticon claims help achieve better speech understanding, reduced listening effort, and an increase in the ability to remember conversations, the Opn is the first Oticon hearing have direct iPhone connectivity with dedicated app, Oticon ON (Android app to follow soon). Now I’m an Android user so haven’t been able to make full use of this yet, but it looks promising. The app allows you to control your hearing aids from your phone, with volume and sound adjustment, a “find my hearing aid” search feature, and low battery notifications. You can also stream sound (whether music, video audio or speech directly to your hearing aids from your iPhone. (You can also connect to “almost any audio device” using the ConnectLine.)

screenshots

Oticon isn’t the first to create Made-for-iPhone hearing aids, and streaming directly to your hearing aids without the need of a lump of plastic hanging around your neck is a game-changer for many people. The company was later to the party than some of its rivals, but Oticon CEO Søren Nielsen explained it was a strategic decision to concentrate on ‘BrainHearing’:

“This whole thing about linking hearing devices to mobile phones and other devices has always been, if not a secondary priority, at least an area where we are not willing to sacrifice the audiologic performance in order to use other technologies that require a lot more power to function.”

But while the connection to iPhone isn’t a first, the connection to IFTTT via the Oticon IFTTT channel using the iPhone app, is. According to Oticon, the app “enables your new Oticon Opn hearing aids to interact with other internet-connected devices and services. Trigger your lights, home alarm or smart thermostat when you turn your hearing aids on or off. Tell your hearing aids to notify you when your battery is low, the laundry is finished, or someone's at the door. With Oticon ON, it's all up to you.” Of course this requires you to have the aforementioned smart things in your home or office, but let’s face it, that’s where we headed.

 

Q&A with Bo Littau, Product Manager at Oticon

I caught up with Bo Littau, Product Manager at Oticon, via email to find out a bit more about the Opn’s new technology, its development, and the future of IoT in audiology. The following is a lightly edited version of the answers Littau kindly provided.

 

In a nutshell, how does the sense of hearing works, and how do hearing aids work/help?

Sound puts the air in motion. That motion hits the ear drum and is converted into mechanical motion that propagates through the tiny bones in the middle ear and then is transformed into waves in the fluid in the inner ear. The motion of the waves is picked up by hair cells in the inner ear. We have two types of hair cells – inner hair cells pick up the signal and send it to the auditory nerve, which is connected to the brain. However, these inner hair cells are only sensitive to sound in a limited range, so they need the outer hair cells to either amplify or dampen the sound so it can get picked up in an optimal way before the signal is sent to the brain.

Hearing loss can be of many types, for instance by making the bones in the middle ear stiff, but the most common one treated with hearing aids is damage to the hair cells. For mild to moderate hearing loss the outer hair cells are lost, so hearing aids help by making soft sounds louder and loud sounds less loud, so the inner hair cells can pick them up in a better way. However, even if the sound is optimally amplified in hearing aids, speech can still be hard to understand, especially in background noise or when other people are talking close to you. To overcome this hearing aids use different kinds of noise reduction techniques and also use wireless transmission of sound, for instance directly from a telephone or from a microphone that is closer to the person you want to hear talk.

Could you give a basic rundown of the types of hearing aid available?

Generally, there are three types of hearing aids offering different ways of wearing and styles of configuration. Two of those are placed and worn behind the ear and one is placed in the ear canal. The different configurations accommodate various needs and preferences, but are also the result of innovation of new technologies and manufacturing techniques. That being said, they are all solving exactly the same purpose of amplifying the sound going into the ear.
In short the three types are:
- BTE [Behind The Ear]: the traditional hearing aid hanging on top of and placed behind the ear. The amplified sound is delivered into the ear through a thin plastic tube fixed to an acrylic ear mould.
Pros: An integrated, complete unit containing all components, working out of the box, that is easy to handle, install and maintain. For HCPs it is also easy to replace in case the client needs to exchange the aid.
Cons: Slightly bigger device and the sound output gets affected by sending it through a thin plastic tube.   
- RITE (or RIC) [speaker placed in the ear canal]: a more recent and advanced version of the BTE – also placed behind the ear. The hearing aid housing contains the microphones, sound processing and amplification but the speaker is now placed inside the ear canal, connected to the housing by a thin wire.
Pros: The housing becomes smaller and visually, the solution is more discreet also because of the thin wire going into the ear. The sound quality is better since the produced output is delivered directly in the ear canal.
Cons: For some people with dexterity issues, the style is perceived as harder to handle and maintain (e.g. replacing small parts).
- ITE [In The Ear]: a complete hearing aid in one shell fully customised to the client’s ear. The housing is manufactured in a special material shaped according to a personal imprint of the ear canal and outer ear. The colour of the housing is available in a range of skin colours.
Pros: the full hearing aid sits in the ear canal and blends into the general appearance, which makes the solution very discreet. The hearing aid can be made very compact and small.
Cons: the process and thus the solution is more expensive. Because of the (wish for) very tiny solutions, the level of possible amplification is limited and the largest hearing losses are out of scope for this version.

 

What makes Opn by Oticon different? How is it using new tech innovations?

There are loads of cool new technologies present in Opn that help to unlock its potential. The first is Velox – our new ultra-fast platform that helps people to better manage busy social situations – it’s a powerhouse of ground-breaking features. This chip is 50 times faster than our previous model, which is a really big step up even in technological terms. It powers our OpenSound Navigator to scan the environment more than 100 times per second to continually analyse and balance sounds and reduce noise. A unique thing with Opn is its ability to very quickly remove background noise, so noise sources are removed even in the extremely short pauses between words. What this means is that traditional directionality is a thing of the past – users can now handle multiple speech and noise sources even in complex situations, follow the sounds they want to hear and shift attention when desired. Surrounding sounds are still there, but they are not accentuated, so users can focus on the sounds they want to hear even in noisy situations.

Another key development is TwinLink. This offers both binaural processing and direct connectivity, and Opn is the first hearing solution on the market to offer these two communication systems in one hearing solution. It’s what allows people to connect directly to the internet without a separate device, and unlocks great possibilities to connect to smart devices. Opn is also the first hearing device compatible with the internet service “If This Then That” (IFTTT), which it connects to via our app ON. This is where it gets the flexibility to connect to and configure personalised recipes for these devices. How this is used is down to the individual – and really that’s the great thing about it.

 

Can you tell us more about the technology? How was it developed? How long has it taken? What challenges have you faced?

The new Velox platform holds a combination of many different and new technologies. The most important thing with a hearing aid is of course how well it helps the user to hear, especially in difficult and complex listening environments e.g. a place with a lot of noise and many speakers.
The key solutions to improved speech understanding, better listening comfort and less strain on the brain are found in the core sound processing. Our company is researching and developing dedicated algorithms to process all the individual acoustic constituents in a listening environment for the benefit of the hearing impaired. This involves several years of research and many man years of development. The sound processing algorithms embedded on Velox represent a completely new approach to manage voices and noise sources moving dynamically in the environment, which in turn demands a lot of processing power. So, in order to realise the benefits of our latest innovations within sound processing algorithms (the OpenSound Navigator feature), we needed to develop a completely new DSP platform powerful enough to support this demand. The Velox platform is developed entirely by Oticon from the ground up, incorporating eight processing cores in a Network on Chip architecture, capable of conducting more the 1200 million operations per second. It’s probably the most powerful DSP in the hearing industry. The key to success however, depends on the product’s ability to perform in all real-life situations including the need for connectivity, user-friendly operations and a long battery life, all in a robust and reliable product. One of the major undertakings with the Velox platform is the scale of performance achieved at a very limited power consumption. In fact, even if the Opn hearing aid is used many hours per day for TV and phone streaming (transmitting Bluetooth audio directly to the hearing aid), the miniature battery will last for 4-5 days. The TwinLinkTM dual radio system, combining the best of two wireless worlds, is leveraging an optimal balance between performance and power consumption. The more power-hungry Bluetooth (BLE) technology is used to connect the hearing aids over a longer distance to external digital sound sources whereas the short-range NFMI wireless technology is continuously exchanging acoustic information between the two hearing aids to better support the brain making sense of sounds.

 

There’s been some ridicule of internet-connected technologies (e.g. connected fridge). Why is an internet-connected hearing aid different? Is it necessary?

It’s true – some smart devices and IoT technologies don’t appear particularly useful, but there’s a lot of technology that we use and rely on today that 10 years ago, people would say we didn’t need. A lot of the focus around internet connected devices for consumers is on convenience, and things we arguably don’t ‘need’, but we’re taking a slightly different approach at Oticon. We can see significant, immediate, and life-changing applications for an internet-connected hearing aid. Consider speaking on the phone – it’s a vital form of communication that many of us take for granted, but can be very difficult for those with hearing loss. By connecting a smartphone directly to the hearing aid this situation is radically improved. With more traditional ‘smart devices’, something like a smart doorbell, that notifies you by a message in the hearing aid, will let you know if someone is at the door, or audio from a baby monitor could be sent directly to a listening device for obvious benefits. And of course, let’s not underestimate the impact of ‘novelty’ devices like smart fridges – anything that can help people feel more in touch with the benefits of modern technology can only be a good thing!

 

How much remote control do you have of the hearing aid? What technology can Opn connect to?

Opn connects directly to a smartphone through our ON app, which can then be used to control the hearing device to do things like change the volume, change programs, check the battery life, and to access recipes that have been created through IFTTT. The hearing aid uses the BLE technology to connect and exchange information and receive commands directly from these devices

Once you have a user account on IFTTT, setting up recipes is really easy – we can see elderly people with hearing loss creating them by themselves, and certainly of using them once they’ve been set up by a friend or relative. So we’re not really restricting the sorts of devices people can connect to at all – this is defined by what is possible on IFTTT.

Of course, a basic remote control – also using the BLE technology – is also availble to those without a smartphone who still prefer to have remote access to adjusting volume control and program shifts in the hearing aids. 

 

How can Opn help business professionals who suffer hearing loss?

In the same ways that it can help people in non-business situations. An example like the ‘restaurant dilemma’ is a good one – situations where people with hearing loss struggle to deal with multiple speakers. Busy meetings can be very difficult for people with hearing loss as with traditional, directional hearing devices they must choose carefully who to focus on to be able to fully understand and might miss important details being discussed in the background. Anything that restricts someone’s ability to understand and contribute to a business environment could obviously also have an impact on their potential in the workplace, and even their ability to further their career. Social aspects are also important – being able to clearly understand and contribute to general department chatter and not feel like you’re missing out is really important for general wellbeing. Essentially it’s again about helping people to live ‘normal’ lives, and not feel restricted in social situations because of their hearing loss.

 

Can you tell us more about the potential for the internet of things/smart technology in audiology?

The potential is vast – absolutely massive. But we don’t define what is possible – all the companies that joined IFTTT do that. It’s a huge ecosystem with huge potential to connect to and interact with smart devices, and of course the sheer range of possible recipes available for what I believe is currently over 150 devices is huge. Once the potential for smart devices within audiology is more established we’d also expect to see more products offering more solutions hitting the market – and the cool thing is that with Opn, we can get right on board with that the very second they appear on IFTTT. Following our domain in IFTTT we can actually see more and more Opn users creating their own rules and recipes, amongst others using their location or time of day as triggers for certain actions and messages.  

 

What do you think the future looks like for hearables?

The future will to a large extent be determined by what makes sense for users. We like to see ourselves as a user needs driven company (part of our promise of ‘People First’) and if we see a product benefit for the users we think it has a reason to be there. The ongoing development of existing and new technologies is also a driver or an enabler for new solutions. In the future, hearables will probably include even more intelligent features to help them work out what to do in certain situations, and will converge with other healthcare related areas. It is likely that future hearing devices support health related actions (notifications or internet based services) by knowing your temperature, body motions or general whereabouts. Finally, you can foresee that the smartphone app interface to hearing devices will enable the user to control and manage this broader range of functionalities and personal performance settings.

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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Associate Editor at IDG Connect

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