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043 – Dr. Cliff Olson & Andy Bellavia – A Seminal Moment in Hearing Aid Innovation

This week’s episode of the Future Ear Radio podcast features Dr. Cliff Olson, audiologist and owner of Applied Hearing Solutions, and Andy Bellavia, director of market development at Knowles Corp. With the recent flurry of new hearing aid devices hitting the market, the three of us sat down to talk about some of the high-level themes that this new technology encompasses.

Our conversation begins with us highlighting the innovation that the primary use case for hearing aids is undergoing. First and foremost, hearing aids are intended to help users hear better. As Cliff mentions, without an optimal experience on the amplification side of things, nothing else really matters. So, what’s really exciting about this new wave of devices is the novel ways that the manufacturers are trying to solve historically challenging aspects to the primary use case (i.e. speech-in-noise).

Take the Resound One, for example. This hearing aid is equipped with six microphones between the two hearing aids, two of which are located on the receiver itself. This has never been done before, as putting a microphone so close to the receiver would typically create a ton of feedback and cause a miserable experience.

What’s changed is that these microphones are all networked together via Bluetooth, working in tandem through binaural processing. The result is that the hearing aid is able to then recreate the “Pinna Effect” by dynamically adjusting the volume on each microphone in real-time to amplify speech sounds and elegantly circumvent the feedback concerns. In essence, the hearing aid, through the computerization its been undergoing these recent years, is able to mimic the way our ears actually work in an increasingly realistic fashion.

This specific example represents as seminal of a moment for hearing aids, as Bluetooth connectivity did seven years ago. Nearly all of these new flagship hearing aids perform similar functions, in some way or another. Some call it intelligibility, others call it “AI”, but at the end of the day, today’s devices are further optimizing the experience by automatically adjusting themselves in real-time.

As Cliff points out, the advantage of having five major hearing aid manufacturers (plus all the non-hearing aid manufacturers dabbling in this space), creates novel approaches to solving problems. As a result, providers and users are the net beneficiaries of the byproduct of all this competition – the innovation.

So, not only does the computerization of the devices allow for breakthrough innovation pertaining to primary use case, but it also facilitates the emergence of secondary use cases. As I have spoken about a number of times on the podcast (and through the blog before that), this is an amazing time to an expert in the anatomy of our ears and the technology we’re putting inside of them. In so many different ways, our ears have become the hottest commodity in today’s attention-based economy, and hearing professionals stand to capitalize.

As the internet increasingly shifts to one that can be accessed aurally, such as through podcasts, ambient media, zoom calls, voice assistants, etc; the devices should be viewed as conduits to the audio-internet. This is largely at the root of the success of Apple’s AirPods, as they provide an incredibly easy conduit to dip in and out of the audio web.

When we solve the main use case and can consistently present an awesome experience with the way the device sounds and feels, the value proposition compounds in value. You go from, “this device helps you to hear better” to “this gizmo connects you to the audio web AND it helps you to hear better,” (or vice-versa). The point is that a fantastic experience of the way the device sounds, creates the perception that the connection to the aural internet is an added bonus (or that being able to hear better is an added bonus).

Ultimately, we’re seeing a giant tide lifting all ships right now. From consumer hearables to premium hearing aids, everything is getting better and raising the overall standard. This rising tide coupled with an expansion in the way our ears can access the internet, should hopefully generate a very large wave of demand for sophisticated in-the-ear products.

As Cliff points out through the course of our conversation, it will be up to professionals to meet consumer expectations with how they want to access, service and operate these devices. Just as we’ve seen through the pandemic, that might mean becoming proficient in remote services, or it might mean being able to expertly match each patient to the right solution for them, whether it be a consumer hearable, a cochlear implant or the newest kind of hearing aid.

-Thanks for Reading-

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