Hearables

Hearing assistive devices shine at Consumer Electronics Show

Photo credit: Gb11111 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I’ve pointed out in earlier blogs to a once-in-a-generation convergence of technology, deregulation, and finance, that is fueling a boom in new hearing assistive devices. That convergence showed up this week at the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show as a handful of new products worth looking at.

This year’s offerings point to a growing cornucopia of new hearables products aimed at our ears—for the first time in decades. And that is a positive indicator that the long moribund, underinvested space of hearing health is attracting global attention. Which is good news for researchers, manufacturers, and consumers.

You’ve already read here about our partner, Richard Neitzel, PhD, from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, who’s working with Apple Inc. on Apple’s new iPhone/iWatch noise-warning app. And you’ve read here about SoundPrint and iHearU and our partner, Antonella Radicchi’s Hush City app and others. We wish them all success!

At this rate it’s going to be hard to keep up! For some of us it’s pure excitement to watch the acoustical/hearing products industry come alive again after forty years in the doldrums!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

American Girl’s 2020 doll of the year

Photo credit: Courtesy of American Girl

by Caroline Masia

On December 31, 2019, Good Morning America announced to the world the American Girl Doll of the year for 2020. Her name is Joss Kendrick, a surfer gal and a cheerleader from Southern California. At first glance, she might look like your typical California girl with beautiful auburn hair, a fit surfer body and beautifully tanned skin. But Joss is different from the other American Girl Dolls. She has hearing aids that you can clearly see circling around her ears and she is proudly showing them off.

When I first saw the Good Morning America annoucement, my heart leapt and I felt proud of the American Girl Doll company for coming out with a doll who has hearing loss. I have hearing loss. I was born deaf and got my first cochlear implant at sixteen months and my second when I was seven years old. Growing up, there was no doll in the market that had hearing aids or cochlear implants. In fact, there was no doll out there that had any sort of differences. Instead, when I returned home from my surgery, I found that my sister had “rigged” up several of her dolls by fashioning “cochlear implants” out of buttons and other materials, so that I could have a doll that looked like me.

It is wonderful to finally have dolls that represent the population more realistically and is also commendable because American Girl is now helping to normalize differences. Everyone faces challenges. And all girls are beautiful. By creating a doll with a hearing impairment, American Girl makes that statement loud and clear!

Caroline Masia is currently in her third year at the University of Central Florida studying exceptional education. She is very active with the Jewish community on campus and is involved with the American Sign Language club. After college, Caroline hopes to teach students who are deaf or hard of hearing and help to make a difference in their lives.

Thanks to Sherilyn Adler, PhD, of the Ear Peace: Save Your Hearing Foundation, an educational nonprofit, for assisting The Quiet Coalition with this piece. TQC is proud to regard Dr. Adler and her group as partners in its work on preventing hearing loss.

No hearing aids leads to divorce

Photo credit: Steve Johnson licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Is refusing to get needed hearing aids grounds for divorce? For Tina Welling, writing in The New York Times’ Modern Love column, it was.

She and her now ex-husband reached what appears for them to be a reasonable solution–they divided their house into two separate apartments, but they remain friends and sometimes walk their respective dogs together–but to me divorce seems to be a radical solution to a spouse’s hearing loss. As the writer explains, though, her husband’s refusal to get the hearing aids he needed crystalized her feelings about the marriage and made its problems unavoidable, so she took what she thought was necessary action after 52 years of marriage.

Studies show that there is a stigma to hearing loss and to wearing hearing aids, and that the average older person needing them waits 7 to 10 years before getting them. This isn’t rational–as this interview from the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst site discusses, you’re still old, with or without hearing aids.

Other research shows that only about a third of older Americans who really need hearing aids get them.

And now, research is underway to see if wearing hearing aids prevents or delays the onset of dementia.

My advice: if you or a loved one needs hearing aids, don’t get a divorce. Get hearing aids instead!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Starting January, help comes to the hard of hearing at your local drug store

Photo credit: Kateweb licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This New York Times article is a wake-up call to all Americans with hearing loss: Starting January 2020, and for 1/10th the price of conventional–and ugly–hearing aids, you can buy “hearing assistive devices” at your local drug store or directly online. The innovation economy has finally come to the hidebound hearing aid industry!

And we can thank a genuinely bi-partisan team in Congress for making this happen. Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, teamed up in late 2016 to write the “Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act,” pushed it through both houses of Congress, and in 2017 convinced President Trump to sign it.

Thank you Senators Grassley and Warren!

What this Act does is tell the FDA to keep its regulatory hands off of a new class of hearing-assistive devices called “personal sound amplification products,” or PSAPs. PSAPs are miniaturized, multi-featured wireless high-tech in-ear devices that do lots of things conventional hearing aids don’t do, and all for about 1/10th the price of conventional hearing aids.

Maybe deregulation works after all!  In this case, it’s good-old-fashioned bi-partisanship that got the deal done.

So if you or a loved one really need hearing aids but haven’t been able or willing to spend the $5,000 to $10,000 the hearing aid cartel has been charging, now’s your chance to tune into the world of sounds you or they have been missing. Check it out!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Will the nation’s young be obese with hearing loss, too?

Photo credit: Gavin Whitner licensed under CC by 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I recently read a report via AMA Wire citing a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimates 57% of today’s young people will be obese by age 35. One wonders how many of them, after two or three decades of listening to music from tablets or personal music players using ear buds or headphones, will also suffer hearing loss.

As long as the regulators are asleep at the wheel, and the American Association of Pediatrics fails to adequately educate parents about the dangers of hearing loss from noise exposure, I guess we’ll find out in a few decades as today’s children sign up to be fitted with hearing aids. Despite concerns about earbud and headphone abuse among children, the AAP doesn’t have sufficient information about the dangers of noise exposure for children on its healthychildren.org website.

And, meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has declined to take action on the basis of false advertising for headphones marketed as “safe” for hearing of children as young as age three using an 85 decibel volume limit, even though a 85 A-weighted decibels is an occupational noise exposure standard–meant for adult workers–and A-weighting usually reduces measured sound levels by 5-7 decibels. The pediatricians say nothing about these unsafe headphones.

Twenty to thirty years from now, will today’s children wonder why the government and medical professionals sat on their hands and watched as they slowly destroyed their hearing, doing little or nothing to protect those who didn’t know better on their own?

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Google defeated by Brooklyn

Photo credit: dumbonyc licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

But the Pixel buds weren’t a total failure, as the duo found the translator worked better in quiet rooms. Which is great if you are traveling to a mythical land of quiet and the local language is preloaded in the accompanying app, but not so much for the real world.
Maybe instead of relying on some hardware and an app to do the heavy lifting, one could struggle with a phrase book and charm/offend the locals like people have been doing forever? Personally, we think there shouldn’t be a “tech solution” for everything. That said, hey Google, how about working on bringing some quiet to city streets? It’s in your self-interest, after all.

Want better sleep? Bose® has you covered

Bose® noise-masking sleepbuds™

by David M Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This CNET review is a intriguing article about Bose’s quest to tap into the auditory health and better sleep market.

PSAPs, or personal sound amplification products, is a term brought to public attention in 2015 by the White House President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology followed by a report from the National Academy of Medicine last October. PSAPs are an emerging class of products that are also called hearables (think wireless earbuds with extra features) that we’ve been following for the past couple of years.

PSAPs are interesting because they represent a host of tech innovations and innovative young tech companies that promises to disrupt the traditional hearing-aid industry that has been dominated for decades by a hegemonic group of risk-averse manufacturers known as the “Big Six,” a market that is carefully regulated by the FDA. The result of decades of regulation and dominance by a handful of companies is that traditional hearing aids are both absurdly expensive, and also not particularly innovative. No surprise there.

But a couple of months ago, the emerging market for PSAPs blew wide open thanks to bi-partisan legislation (the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act, co-sponsored by Senators Warren and Grassley) which exempts PSAPs from regulation. And that means three things:
1. Now you can buy PSAPs directly from the manufacturers or at CVS/Walgreens etc. (“over the counter”) without a prescription and you don’t have to pay an audiologist to fit them;
2. PSAPs cost a fraction of what a pair of traditional hearing aids costs (PSAPs may cost you $150 to $400, but compare that to $4,000 to $10,000 for conventional hearing aids); and
3. Two dozen hungry, young start-ups funded through crowd-sourcing or by venture capital professionals are charging into this market.

So If you, like me, like to watch a tech-race unfold, then get out your binoculars and join the crowd at this track because its an exciting race in a market that has been moribund and over-regulated for decades.

Watching this restless bunch of young PSAP startups and their colorful jockeys (I mean their CEOs), and eyeing them very carefully, are a small but high-powered group of suits you’ll recognize from consumer electronics: Apple, Sony, Phillips, Bose, et al. Why? Because these are the big guys who are already in the ear business–they sell earbuds and headphones, among other things and wireless hearables is a potentially important new market. The ear is their turf. So if they can grab a piece of the de-regulating market for wireless hearing-assistive devices that’s a great business opportunity, right? After all, 48 million Americans are hearing-impaired so this is potentially a big niche market, and who knows how many Americans are sleep-deprived?

But what about Bose?

Bose—an intensely private, even secretive consumer electronics company headquartered on top of a small mountain near Boston—is the first of these big consumer electronics players to make a move in the PSAP race. Bose’s founder, Amar Bose, died a couple of years ago, but he was a singular, legendary force in consumer electronics and seemed to be the fountain from whom all of the company’s products poured. With his death, ownership of the company was turned over to Amar Bose’s alma mater, MIT (yes, MIT controls the majority stake but has no say in management). But can the company still innovate now that it founder and chief idea-guy is gone?

One approach to innovation is through acquisition. So last year, Bose acquired the San Diego-based startup Hush and recently announced the release of a new Bose-branded product based on the work done by three engineer-entrepreneurs who founded Hush not too long ago. If you’ve been watching this emerging market, you probably noticed that only last week, the self-declared front-runner in PSAPs/hearables a product called “Here One” from the company Doppler Labs, ran out of juice and went out of business. Why? They burned through $50 million trying to win this horse race, but then ran out of money and couldn’t get Apple or Sony or any of the rest of the big guys to pony up and buy them out. Sometimes that happens to front-runners and it’s too bad, but it clears the way for others to emerge. And Bose wants to be one of the next group as these horses round the first corner.

Now Bose, in addition to being intensely secretive, has also always done things differently. And they’re certainly going after this emerging PSAP/hearables market from some intriguing angles. For instance, they recently have launched a crowdfuning campaign for their new Bose® noise-masking sleepbuds™. Another example is their newly announced Hearphones for people who need help understanding speech in noisy environments. Both of these products indicate that Bose is probing the now-deregulated “hearing health market”—a big departure from their traditional focus on consumer electronics. Perhaps they think 48 million Americans is a viable niche market where they can beat Apple, Sony, Phillips and the Big Six hearing aid companies by getting out of the gate faster. Who knows? Bose has succeeded by focusing on niches ignored by others and they’ve got their own retail stores, so keep your eyes on them.

It’s a race. And some of us are watching closely to see what happens. If you placed a bet on Here One and lost, then just swallow hard and keep your eyes on the race. It’s only just begun.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Can a machine learn to solve our speech in noise problem?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece in The Hearing Journal asks, “Can a Machine Learn to Solve our Speech in Noise Problem?”

Maybe yes, maybe no.

The “speech in noise” problem is the difficulty many people with hearing loss–and even people with normal hearing as tested by pure tone audiometry–have  following a conversation if the room (often a restaurant or party) is noisy.

I have that problem, as many adults do, and I also have three problems with this article.

First, talking about a technological solution to the speech in noise problem without discussing how we can interfere with the development of this condition by simply making the world quieter to prevent hearing loss is irresponsible. Imagine public health officials in the 1950s focusing on making better wheelchairs, braces, and crutches for those affected by polio without also working to prevent polio by developing a vaccine. You can’t, because that would have be absurd. To prevent noise-induced hearing loss, we don’t need more research. We don’t need a vaccine. All we need is to make a quieter world, something that has been known for decades.

Second, an even better solution to the speech in noise problem would be to require quieter indoor spaces.

Third, requiring quieter public spaces is exactly what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires. People with hearing loss clearly meet the ADA definition of having a disability, and they require “reasonable accommodations” to allow them to fully enjoy (yes, this is the legal standard in ADA) places open to the public. I will be speaking about “Disability Rights of Ambient Noise for People with Auditory Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act” at the December meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, in New Orleans. I recent learned that my talk will be broadcast live over the internet. Details of how to listen will be posted when they become available.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

The first one bites the dust

No longer with us

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some observers see great potential in a new category of electronic device called hearables, something a little less than a personal sound amplification device, or PSAP, and certainly less than a hearing aid, but designed to help adults understand conversation in noisy places.

Others of us–and I am in this latter category–don’t see much of a future for these products, which are unlikely to work well and unlikely to be attractive to consumers. After all, who wants to be the only one in the room wearing some silly-looking device?

There are several vendors trying to bring these to market but today we learned that the first one of these, Doppler Labs, bit the dust after burning through $51 million of venture capital.

Its product, Here One, only had a two-hour battery life.

One wishes the $51 million had been spent dealing with the root cause of the problem, making restaurants quieter. That’s what’s really needed to help people with hearing loss.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

A lament about hearing aids

Jennifer Finney Boylan, The New York Times, wonders: “Glasses Are Cool. Why Aren’t Hearing Aids?

I can answer that for you Jennifer:

Hearing loss is stigmatized and hearing aids are expensive, rarely covered by insurance, and don’t work as well for hearing as glasses work for sight.

In short, there is nothing at all cool about an expensive bit of kit that doesn’t work that well and is assumed to be a device meant only for the elderly.

You’re welcome.