Award Winning Hearing Tech at CES 2019

The proliferation of wireless connectivity, miniature electronics, and artificial intelligence in recent history have been good for people who have hearing loss. Wearable consumer and medical devices are getting a lot of attention these days. Hearing aids and PSAPs (personal sound amplification products) are part of the trend, and one place that it shows is at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Owned and operated by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), this annual showcase attracts thousands of companies that hope to impress buyers, suppliers, investors, and the public with innovative technology. This year, more than 4,500 companies displayed their futuristic tech wares and more than 180,000 industry experts, electronics manufacturers, tech enthusiasts, and reporters flocked to Las Vegas for for the event.

Products in the spotlight this year included curved TVs and flexible phone displays, faster than fast computers, and an abundance of Smart Home systems. In case you haven’t heard, you can now control lighting, security cameras, appliances, toilets, and the proverbial kitchen sink (literally) with the help of the internet. Even hearing aids can now become a part of the internet of things in your smart-home network.

Hearing-related technology appeared at CES in the Audio and Video, Wearable, Health and Wellness, and several more categories. The show does not have a category specifically for hearing and hearing loss. This means that companies need to stand out from the competition to impress the judges. This year, several hearing aid companies managed to win them over with advances in the Wearables (GN ReSound), Accessibility (Starkey and Phonak), 3D Printing (Phonak) and Innovation (WIDEX) categories.

ReSound LiNX Quattro

ReSound returned to CES in 2019 for a fifth consecutive year. It’s becoming a tradition from the company to keep coming back to claim more awards. The judges recognized ReSound’s new LiNX Quattro hearing aid as one of the most innovative designs in the Wearable category.

Some features that give LiNX Quattro an edge include:

  • Android compatibility, coming soon
  • Improved sound processing
  • Higher-quality streaming than previous versions
  • Rechargeable batteries

When ReSound launched its first LiNX hearing aid five years ago at the CES 2014, the hearing aid generated a lot of positive press. It was the first ever Made-for-iPhone hearing aid. It was also the first time that a major hearing company launched a new hearing aid at CES. Professional meetings were the usual venue for new product launches, but ReSound had a game-changing hearing aid to shout about.

The first LiNX marked a shift in public perspective about hearing aids. Who would have thought hearing aids would become an object of desire for people with normal hearing? Sure, there were Bluetooth headsets, but LiNX hearing aids were high-quality, customized, miniature, and had great battery life. This was truly something for people to get excited about. ReSound’s new LiNX Quattro is the fourth generation of the groundbreaking LiNX series.

Phonak Audéo Marvel and Phonak Virto B-Titanium

Phonak was named a CES 2019 Innovation Awards Honoree in the Accessibility and 3D Printing categories, respectively, for Phonak Audéo Marvel and Phonak Virto B-Titanium hearing aids.

Audéo Marvel is the first universal Bluetooth hearing aid for direct streaming with Android™ and iOS™ mobile devices. This means wearers can stream music, phone calls and other audio directly to the hearing aids, in stereo. If you have not been following this development, you may not realize that it’s a very big deal. Most hearing aids can only do this with iOS devices, so Android users have been waiting patiently – or not so patiently – for hearing aids to fully support direct streaming with Android devices. It’s here!

Phonak Virto B-Titanium hearing aids have a truly unique design. They are made of titanium. Luxurious? Yes, but with a purpose. The shell is 3D printed in titanium to make the hearing aids 15 times stronger and 26% smaller than acrylic (plastic) hearing aids. The result is a hearing aid that can fit deeper in the ear or in smaller ear canals than other hearing aids. For some people, the tiny size of Virto B-Titanium can make the difference between being comfortable and not. It also leaves a little more room for ventilation, which can help the wearer’s own voice sound more natural.

Starkey Livio AI

Starkey received an Innovation Award in recognition of the Livio AI artificial-intelligence hearing aid. Livio AI expands the concept of hearing aids to include health and personal safety. Starkey’s Chief Technology Officer, Achin Bhowmik, summed up the story behind Livio AI, saying:


“Starkey has done for hearing aids what Apple® did for phones. Before Apple, the phone was only used to make calls. Now your phone is a camera, GPS, and a tool to browse the internet. Livio AI is no longer ‘just’ an incredible hearing aid. It’s a multi-functional device that tracks brain and body health, offers real-time language translation, and soon will even detect falls. This is a new era for the hearing industry.”

In a way, Starkey has continued what competitor GN ReSound started a few years ago. By bringing hearing aids to CES 2014, GN ReSound asserted that hearing aids could be exciting. Starkey has repeated GN ReSound’s assertion in a new way by creating hearing aids that challenge the very meaning of hearing aids, or at least make their definition a little broader.

Do you really need three-dimensional motion sensors, geo-tagging, and activity tracking to hear better? Probably not, but that’s beside the point. One thing Starkey has got right is that hearing aids are not only for your ears, and never were. Hearing aids don’t cure hearing loss. They help people live better, with hearing loss.

WIDEX ENERGY CELL

If there was any doubt that hearing aid technology can compete with the best of the best on the world stage at CES, WIDEX has put it to rest. WIDEX ENERGY CELL is a hydrogen-power fuel cell that supplies 24 hours of hearing aid operation after a 20-second “refill”. This means the hearing aids will require no conventional batteries and no power outlets. No batteries. No recharging. No kidding.

With ENERGY CELL technology, the refill comes from a portable methanol cartridge, so there is truly no need for batteries or an electrical outlet at any time. Ever. The only waste is vaporized water and few particles of carbon dioxide. That’s impressive.

Is this too good to be true? We will find out more when the product is released later this year, but if ENERGY CELL lives up to its promise, then hearing aid wearers everywhere will be jumping for joy.

Is this just a gimmick? We don’t think so. It would be totally out of character for Widex, a company that has a reputation for elitism when it comes to quality. Resorting to cheap tricks would seriously damage the well-respected brand. Never mind reputation, innovation is expensive. I can only speculate how much WIDEX has invested in developing ENERGY CELL, but inventing hearing aids that make their own energy can’t be cheap.

Another reason to appreciate ENERGY CELL is that changing batteries or waiting for them to recharge can be a nuisance. Many people dislike the environmental implications of throwing away disposable hearing aid batteries, much less the expense of buying them. Rechargeable batteries are safer, simpler to use, but can interrupt communication if you forget to charge them. While they are friendlier to the environment than disposable batteries, they they don’t last forever.

Last but not least, the CTA has given WIDEX ENERGY CELL a stamp of approval. This lends a lot of credibility to the new technology. If ENERGY CELL lives up to the hype, it will bring welcome relief. Practical, effective, renewable energy for hearing aids? This would be a truly meaningful innovation. Will it come at a reasonable cost? We will find out soon.

Oticon Kaizn

Oricon received a CES Best of Innovation Award in the Software and Mobile Apps category. The company was also named a CES Innovation Honoree in the Tech for a Better World category.

The winning Software and App technology was Oticon Kaizn™. It isn’t a hearing aid, but something that works with hearing aids. Kaizn is the name of Oticon’s artificial intelligence engine that will work with Oticon Opn hearing aids.

Oticon explains that Kaizn “learns from a hearing aid wearer’s listening preferences, habits, and environments” which it uses to “predict [the wearer’s] preferences and automatically adjust… for an optimized listening experience.” This description may sound a lot like the automatic hearing aids already available, but Kaizn is actually something more.

Here’s what Oticon says about Kaizn:


“The AI-powered tool communicates with hearing aid wearers at key moments to learn their “intent” or what they want to gain from different sound environments. For example, Kaizn will recognize when a hearing aid wearer enters a noisy environment, like a loud restaurant, and will contact the wearer, via a push notification, to ask whether they need “focus” or “comfort” in the scenario. Kaizn will then adjust the user’s hearing aid settings to reflect that preference. Over time, Kaizn can automate adaptive changes based on the user’s feedback/validation and adjust the user’s Opn hearing aid settings automatically when they enter similar noise environments.”

Some hearing aid wearers are excited about hearing aids with artificial intelligence. Others fear that sharing their “listening preferences, habits, and environments” with any hearing aid company could be risky. Critics say that if artificial intelligence means learning from listeners whose preferences differ from their own, people might get stuck with hearing aid settings that work well for others but not for themselves. Yet another view is that artificial intelligence is irrelevant, because “I can adjust my hearing aids perfectly well on my own”.

There is merit to all these perspectives. First, Artificial Intelligence, or “AI” has real potential to make hearing aids more effective. Second, we cannot know everything that Oticon or any other company might do with the anonymized data collected from hearing aids. Third, there are plenty of times when user preference should trump computer predictions.

On the other hand, automatic hearing aids can change to a noise reduction program much faster than you can reach for a button or remote control, and they never forget to switch back after the noise has settled. There is something to be said for automation.

If you are old enough to remember taking photographs on film, then you probably recall how difficult it was to learn how to take great shots. You had to develop the film to find out how your photos looked, and by that time the opportunity to try another angle or change the lighting was long gone. Taking great photos is challenging with digital cameras too, but they make it easier to improve, because you can check the photo in the moment and try again. That is, if the moment lasts!

Think about how this relates to the engineers who design hearing aids, most of whom don’t wear hearing aids themselves. In the past, engineers have used recorded sounds to train automatic hearing aids in a laboratory. The process is remarkably effective, but it’s not the same as getting feedback in the moment from millions of hearing aid wearers all world. AI changes that.

2019 will prove to be an interesting year in the hearing aid world. We can’t wait to see how these technologies are received by consumers, and anxiously await the continued innovation that is surely just around the corner.

Jeff Hall Jeff Hall Jeff is a licensed hearing aid dispenser and the President of ZipHearing- one of the largest discount hearing aid suppliers in the United States. Jeff lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and newborn daughter.

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