Last May, I wrote a long essay about how the most interesting innovation occurring in the world of hearing aids and hearables is the stuff that’s happening inside the devices. Nearly all the cool new features and capabilities that are emerging with our smart ear-worn computers are by-and-large derived from the breakthroughs transpiring underneath the hood of the devices. As I wrote about in that essay, the core of the innovation is based around what 3D Robotic’s CEO, Chris Anderson, describes as the “Peace Dividends of the Smartphone Wars.”
It’s estimated that more than 7 billion smartphones have been produced since 2007, which means tens or hundreds of billions of the components comprising the guts of the devices have been produced for said smartphones as well. All of the components contained in the smartphone supply chain, are the same components housed in the vast majority of consumer electronic devices, ranging from drones, to Roombas, to TVs, to smart speakers, to Apple Watches, to hearables. Components such as microphones, receivers, antennas, sensors, DSP chips, etc. have become dramatically cheaper and more accessible for OEMs, as they represent the aforementioned, “peace dividends.”
A good example of this phenomenon is Sonova’s SWORD (Sonova Wireless One Radio Digital) chip. When hearing aids began to become Bluetooth enabled, the hearing aid manufacturers initially opted to work directly with Apple to use its proprietary 2.4 GHz Bluetooth low energy protocol, creating a new class of made-for-iphone (MFi) hearing aids. The upside for hearing aid manufacturers to use this protocol, rather than Bluetooth Classic, was that it represented a battery efficient solution that paired very well binaurally, so long as the hearing aids were paired to an iPhone. That’s Apple in a nutshell: if you’re part of its ecosystem, it works great, if not, don’t bother.
So, in 2018, when all of Sonova’s competitors had their MFi hearing aids on the market, some for years, the market expected that Sonova would soon release it’s own, long-awaited line of MFi hearing aids. Instead, Sonova released the Audeo Marvel line and incorporated a new chip, SWORD, which supported five Bluetooth protocols, allowing users to pair to iPhones using the MFi protocol (Bluetooth low energy), or to Android handsets using Bluetooth Classic.
One of the reasons the MFi protocol was initially more attractive relative to BT Classic is that bluetooth low energy is inherently more power efficient and capable of streaming binaurally. Sonova’s SWORD solved the power dilemma, due to a new chip design that included a new power management system relying on voltage converters. It solved the binaural issue, by allocating one of the five BT protocols to its own proprietary, Binaural VoiceStream Technology (BVST).
This week, Sonova took it a step further by ushering in Marvel 2.0 and allowing for RogerDirect connectivity. This allows for the various Roger microphone transmitters to directly pair with the Roger receiver built into the Marvel hearing aids. This is done by allocating one of the five BT protocols to the Roger system. Abram Bailey at Hearing Tracker wrote a great recap on this new firmware update that will soon become available to all Marvel owners through their hearing care provider. You can also check out Dr. Cliff Olson’s video on the update below.
All of the innovation occurring inside the devices might not be the most glamorous, we’re talking about computer chips after all, but it’s what all the cool new features of today’s hearing aids and hearables are predicated on. That’s why I am so intrigued by what Sonova is doing with SWORD – it makes the device so much more capable in what it can do. If you’re curious about what features on the horizon are most likely to appear next with our little ear-worn computers, start looking at the what’s going on underneath the hood of the devices and you’ll start to get an idea of what’s feasible based on the component innovation.
-Thanks for Reading-
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