Futurist Thomas Frey: Hearing aids are for old people. At least that’s what I thought when I was young and invincible attending rock concerts far louder than they should have been.
Even though I still have most of my hearing relatively intact, I’m also part of the aging baby boom generation whose sheer size is already beginning to tax the limits of today’s healthcare systems.
People over the age of 65 typically spend 3-5 times more on healthcare than those who are younger, so unless we figure out ways to radically disrupt this trend, we may all be dealing with some rather dire affordability issues.
As a tiny pebble being dropped into the massive pond of healthcare costs, one of the first truly disruptive technologies for the hearing aid industry may be Google Glass with its conductive-bone audio transmission capabilities.
Three features that give it such disruptive potential are the elimination of an earpiece, the processing capabilities of its onboard microprocessor, and an open API that allows the geeks of the world to develop apps far more ingenious than anything in existence.
Here are a few thoughts on why this tiny sub-category of Google Glass will likely have such a massive impact.
History of the Hearing Aid
After the invention of the transistor in 1948, hearing aids began to shrink
The idea of hearing aids began to take root in the 1700s with the creation of shell-like devices that enabled a person to capture a larger sphere of sound and focus it into their ear. While they never worked very well, this early thinking led to a generation of electronic devices that began to crop up after Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876.
The first electric hearing aid, called the Akouphone, was created by Miller Reese Hutchison in 1898. It used a carbon transmitter, so that the hearing aid could be portable.
Later, Siemens began to commercialize an electronically amplified hearing aid in 1913. The product was bulky, about the size of a “tall cigar box” and not easily portable.
As an industry, hearing aids started to catch on after the development of transistors in 1948 by Bell Laboratories. Over time they’ve become tinier, more fashionable, and with far better audio capabilities.
Our aging baby boomer population in the U.S. (similar in other countries) will dramatically increase demand for health-related products as individuals over the age of 65 typically spend 300-500% more on healthcare than to people under 65
The number of people over 65 is increasing quickly, and so are activity levels. Gone are the days when old people were relegated to a rocker on the front porch to while away their remaining years. Seniors today are very active, and very demanding of solutions to anything that will limit their capabilities.
As you can see in the chart above, most of today’s consumer electronics products – cameras, laptops, TVs and even GPS systems – have dropped on average by more than half!
The combination of market competition and low cost manufacturing in the Far East have streamlined production processes and driven prices lower. The only exceptions in the above examples are MP3 players and hearing aids.
MP3s experienced a price jump because its capabilities have advanced exponentially over the past decade going from storing 128MB of data (roughly 12 songs) in 2000 to storing 160G of data (roughly 40,000 songs) or more today.
Hearing aids prices have risen partly because they’re covered by insurance and partly because of sheer demand. It’s an industry well positioned for a radical overhaul.
Enter Google Glass
Google Glass is an attempt to free people from their desktop computers and remove the quirky need to check their portable devices every couple minutes. Glass places all the same information into a viewing surface right in front of your eyes.
Essentially, Google Glass is a camera, display, touchpad, microprocessor, battery and microphone built into spectacle frames. The display is slightly above a person’s normal field of vision but easily viewable.
The viewing surface is the equivalent of looking at a 24-inch display from 8 inches away.
Having and ever-present online display mounted on your head gives rise to a series of obvious uses such as taking, sending, and receiving photos, videos, search, facial recognition, calendar reminders, breaking news flashes, and much more.
But one of the more intriguing thoughts is that Glass will become a close-to-the-brain interface device capable of adding any number of add-ons and attachments.
The current version of Glass features a sunglasses attachment that can easily be coupled to the main rail. In time it will allow normal corrective lenses to be added.
Glass does not have a typical earpiece but instead transmits sound through bone conduction. The use of this kind of non-obtrusive sound amplification creates the possibility for a device used as a hearing aid for those with low-level hearing loss.
Naturally a number of in-ear attachments could also be attached to compensate for whatever kind of hearing loss issues an individual is dealing with.
The Hearing Aid App
Google’s approach is unique. Sound is captured by the Glass frame and converted into something “hearable” through bone conduction transfer – vibrating your skull to transmit to your ears.
Since hearing loss comes in a million different shapes and sizes, developing a perfect solution for everyone has been a rather elusive dream.
By placing a device like this in the hands of people outside of current industry thought leaders opens up an entirely new realm of possibilities.
Just adding self-adjusting EQ apps that autocorrect based on the micro-detection of normal human responses could improve our listening abilities a thousand fold.
With the addition of directional devices, we may soon have the bionic ability to zero in on a conversation a mile away, or to listen through walls, or even pick out a quiet conversation happening in a noisy room.
Very likely, a near-term app will give us the ability to see an instant translation of a conversation we’re having in a foreign country in our own native tongue on the Glass display.
Yes, sensory enhancements like this may seem scary at first, and there will be many abuses, but when have we ever been satisfied with living within the confines of our current abilities?
“Just adding self-adjusting EQ apps that autocorrect based on the micro-detection of normal human responses could improve our listening abilities a thousand fold.”
As you can see, I’ve focused in on a very tiny aspect of Glass capabilities. Yet the overall impact can be enormous.
Roughly 25% of the U.S. population suffers some level of hearing loss, yet it is a condition that will affect 100% of every population either directly or indirectly at some point in their lives.
The U.S. hearing aid market is a $6 billion industry that has been licking its lips at the prospects for an aging population that will quickly double in size.
However, they never imagined their biggest competitor might soon be Google, a rival few companies want to have enter their space.
But this is just one possibility. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the disruptions Google Glass may bring, or whether you think it could simply fizzle out altogether. Or will Apple or Samsung create a competitive product that is far superior with far better features?
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything