Have You Heard The News?
By Jack Kapica
I was road-testing my first hearing aid when I found myself at a large party, mortified by an irrational suspicion that everyone there was staring at it. Moments later, I was introduced to a young woman, perhaps 20 and heartbreakingly pretty. As she turned her head, I noticed she too was wearing hearing aids. Big ones. Behind each ear. And she was making no effort to hide them.
Well, I thought, if hearing aids weren’t bothering a girl this pretty, I had no excuse.
“Hearing aids,” says Toronto audiologist Tracey Gale, “are less visible than hearing loss.”
Sony unwittingly helped rehabilitate the hearing aid when in the 1980s it popularized the Walkman, making big ear buds sexy. Today, cellphone users proudly wear enormous Bluetooth headsets. This cultural shift to visible headgear — hearing-aid maker Kevin Semcken of Able Planet calls it “the new bling” — is being exploited by audiologists who want to destigmatize hearing loss. Last year, the Canadian division of electronics giant Siemens Hearing Instruments introduced a line of fashion hearing aids called Life, designed to be seen as fashion statements. They come in 16 colours, including Berry Charming, Fresh and Suave.
These efforts to pimp the hearing aid coincide with baby boomers reaching their age-related hearing-loss years, as well as with younger people needing them earlier, some suffering damage from loud iPods.
The cutting edge is Bluetooth, the wireless technology used mostly in cellphones. A number of high-end hearing aids now include it, allowing users to talk on cellphones and listen to MP3 players or home-theatre systems without having to crank up the volume.
The immediate future includes multiple microphones to enhance the sense of where sounds are coming from, as well as a new technology called the Cetera Algorithm, a complex mathematical formula that can match the exact characteristics of the wearer’s ear, giving sound greater depth and character.
For Semcken, Able Planet’s chairman and CEO, the future will involve his company’s Linx Audio technology. It creates harmonic sounds in higher frequencies, the first area where hearing fails, resulting in a crisper sound. Able Planet currently makes headphones and headsets for hearing-impaired computer gamers and hopes to launch a line of audiology assisted living devices. Semcken is also negotiating with cellphone manufacturers to embed Linx in their products, claiming it can improve sound quality by 30 to 40 per cent.
Developers are talking about merging cellphones with hearing aids into a hands-free communications device, perhaps even incorporating language-translation software. Also on the drawing board is software that could be custom-tuned to a significant other’s voice.