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Hearing Aids Become ‘Hearables’ with Digital Signal Processing

Most modern consumers are familiar with the term ‘wearables’, small, digital devices worn on a person’s body for the purposes of health monitoring and data collection. Items like the Apple Watch and Fitbits are excellent examples of the popularity of this type of technology. Thanks to these products, people are able to do everything from counting daily steps to assessing sleep patterns.  In Australia though, one company is taking the idea of wearables one step further. Thanks to advanced digital signal processing, company researchers are turning hearing aids into ‘hearables’.

A ‘hearable’ is really a confluence of two concepts. First is the time-tested concept of improving a person’s hearing by inserting a tiny amplifier into his or her ear. The second is the concept of using computer and digital technology to make assistive hearing devices better. This has been achieved through skilled application of advanced signal processing to enhance hearing by selective frequency amplification, for example.

It Started with Better Earbuds

One of the driving forces in this space is the company Nuheara. A Create article discussing the innovation going on with the Perth-based intelligent wireless earphone company makes it clear that the company’s hearable development was not originally birthed out of a need to make hearing aids better. It actually started out as a drive to improve the earbuds that mobile device users wear. The goal for designers and engineers was to create a Bluetooth earbud that used less power but still offered better sound. Digital signal processing was a big part of the research and development process.

Figure 1 Breakdown of internal components of IQBud from Nuheara

Nuheara earbuds are unique in that they include the company’s proprietary super-intelligent noise cancellation (SINC) technology. Microphones on the outside of the product capture environmental clutter and noise, identify the background/stationary frequency components, and then actively suppress those frequencies, much like Dolby noise reduction for audio media.

The hearing aid of tomorrow will not simply amplify sound. Amplification is good, but it is limited in how much it can help people with hearing loss. For a lot of hearing aid users, the volume of the person/subject they are trying to listen to is not the issue, rather it is the volume of their surroundings that they are no longer able to filter out. They can hold a conversation well when in a quiet room, but entering a crowded restaurant or large gathering is immediately debilitating.

Researchers at Nuhera are now focusing their advanced filtering technology developed for their earbuds into hearing assistance. These ‘hearables’ intelligently filter signals to meet the needs of a user’s current environment and will be able to adapt on-the-fly to artificially restore a user’s hearing to near normal.

Filtering, Cleaning, and Amplifying

So how close are we to marketable hearables? The first generation has already been released in the form of IQBuds Boost. Working with the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) in Australia as well as the HEARing Cooperative Research Centre, Nuheara was able to successfully license a non-linear fitting procedure traditionally used for prescription fitting for hearing aids.  Using the interactive Ear ID™ process, a user’s hearing capabilities are evaluated and the built-in neural network automatically calibrates the earbuds specifically to that person. While testing by Clifford Olson, AuD showed the customized capabilities of the IQBuds Boost did not quite measure up to clinical NAL-NL2 prescriptive targets, it was able to accurately identify the level of user hearing loss. Further testing by Nuheara found that using the Ear ID assessment, 87% of participants were able to calculate four frequency average hearing thresholds (4FAHLs) that were within 5dB of those determined by an audiologist-administered hearing test.

This product demonstrates the incredible potential advanced signal processing has for any number of applications in everyday life. By processing audio signals and actively eliminating excess noise, Nuheara has developed highly functional hearables that are significantly more affordable than hearing aids and can be obtained without a prescription. Other companies are following suit. Bloomberg has reported plans for Apple to release noise cancellation for AirPods in 2019. Thanks to a desire to create better earbuds, there’s now an entire industry dedicated to developing the most technologically advanced hearing aids in the world.

While this new facet of hearing assistance is promising, it is also still in its infancy. Bringing innovative ideas to their full potential is what we do at Rock West Solutions. Our team of engineers has over a century of collective industry experience. They know what pitfalls to avoid and where to focus effort for maximizing progress. It is not enough to simply have a good idea; you must be able to execute and optimize. Rock West Solutions is your partner for turning good ideas into great realities.

Sources:

  1. Createhttps://www.createdigital.org.au/hearing-aids-high-tech-hearables/
  2. Dr. Clifford Olsonhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QguJy6OWAGQ
  3. Nuheara Ear ID Assessmenthttps://www.nuheara.com/ear-id-receives-clinical-validation/
  4. Bloomberghttps://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-25/apple-is-said-to-amplify-its-audio-device-strategy-in-2019