Goodbye earbuds

Wearable computing: Soon, all ages will want ‘hearing aids’

By Steve Outing

“Wearable computing” devices are upon us. Actually, they’re already on my body on a daily basis. If you met me in person, you’d be hard pressed to tell.

  • There’s my watch, a Pebble that connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone and looks like a normal, nicely designed wristwatch. When I receive a phone call, the Pebble vibrates and caller ID appears on its screen. Ditto for text messages sent to my phone. (I do have to pull out my phone to answer a voice call.) The Pebble also displays my exercise data when I turn on the Runkeeper app on the iPhone when out for some exercise, and I want to record the data. And I use the Pebble to skip songs when listening to music from my iPhone.
  • I used to carry a small Fitbit exercise data tracker in my pocket; alas, an unintended trip through the washer and dryer killed it and it’s not yet been replaced. It also connected wirelessly to my iPhone.

But as much as I’m enjoying the Pebble, what’s really great are my new hearing aids. That’s one of my ears in the photo above, and since the image is fairly large you can see a tiny wire snaking into my ear canal. The “large” part of the device, about the size of two peas and packed with sophisticated technology and a tiny replaceable battery, sits on top of my ear, almost invisible. Indeed, most people who I’ve had conversations with in my first few weeks of wearing the hearing aids haven’t noticed them.

Frankly, I dreaded getting hearing aids as my hearing declined in recent years. (I’m of the generation that attended too many ridiculously loud rock concerts when younger.) But now I’m excited, and I predict that before long people of all ages will be wearing tiny wireless headsets that look like my hearing aids. … The end of wired earbuds and Bluetooth earclips that make you look part-cyborg may not be far away.

No doubt that sounds ridiculous to people in their 20s and 30s with perfect hearing. But consider what my hearing aids, made by Phonak, can do other than help me hear tonal ranges that were getting lost to me. As you can see in the Phonak graphic at right, by adding a small Bluetooth device worn as a pendant around the neck, the hearing-aid user can receive — directly in the tiny hearing devices — phone calls and listen to music or audio. The pendant, or wireless audio streaming device, is necessary as intermediary between the hearing aids and phone because the ear devices are too tiny to support Bluetooth battery drain for other than a very short time. It also serves as microphone for phone calls, and a remote control to answer calls on your phone, turn volume up and down, skip a song, etc. I.e., your phone can stay in your pocket or purse.

Phonak InternationalWhen a manufacturer starts building “wireless earphones” that look like and are as tiny as my hearing aids, there could be a large market for people of all ages wanting to be done with earbuds that frequently fall out and wires that get tangled. Imagine a “hearing aid” minus the hearing technology that makes devices like mine cost thousands of dollars, but rather serves only to received streamed audio from a smartphone or other portable audio device. Perhaps companies like Phonak may have younger users in mind as they now offer their current hearing aids in fashionable colors, as you see in the image here hawking designs for “Fun” and “Fashion.”

Could this prediction come true? There are challenges, foremost that hearing-aid manufacturers currently charge in the thousands of dollars for the tiniest devices that include the most modern technology, such as streaming from a smartphone, and automatic sound adjustment based on the conditions you find yourself in (like a noisy restaurant, to better allow you to hear what the person across the table from you is saying). With the Baby Boom now the perfect age range for needing hearing aids (thank you, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, et al), the companies are anticipating record profits in the coming years. Do they have incentive to develop modified versions that cost much less and address the much larger market of everyone who would like a better personal-music solution than wired earbuds and clunky Bluetooth ear-clips? If not, will their patents prevent others from producing a better smartphone earbud?

(There is promising news that Apple already has incorporated Hearing Aid Compatibility into iOS6, and is working with leading hearing-aid manufacturers. But that may only mean that expensive hearing aids will be able to connect directly with iPhones at some point.)

Of course, there’s some irony in this prediction of low-cost “hearing aids” replacing earbuds. Imagine a 30-year-old (with no no hearing problems) walking around town listening to music streamed directly into her ears. With the devices so tiny as to be invisible to most people, if someone shouts her name from across the street, it will appear that she’s deaf! … At least with wired earbuds, we tip off other people that we aren’t listening to them.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!