Picture this: Your favorite restaurant is crowded and noisy. The couple at the next table is trying in vain to get two toddlers to use their indoor voices. It should be all but impossible to hear the conversation at your own dinner table. Fortunately, your hearing aids and Apple (AAPL) iPhone are working together to put a stop to such distractions. Tap a few buttons on your iPhone, and your hearing aids instantly adjust to block out ambient noise and help you focus.
The next time you come back to that same restaurant, it’s noisy again. The GPS function in your phone knows where you are – and tells the hearing aids to adjust accordingly – without your lifting a finger. Again, as before, you are able to focus on the conversation at hand, instead of the chaos that surrounds you.
These days, it should come as no surprise that gadgets are working ever more in sync to improve quality of life. The scenario I just described is about to become a reality, thanks to the launch of the Beltone First, the first “direct to iPhone” hearing aid. The aids, widely available in the first quarter of 2014 will be sold through Beltone and its network of more than 1,500 dealers nationwide. (Beltone is owned by GN Store Nord, the fourth largest hearing aid company in the world).
A few hearing aids have been able to connect with a smartphone in the past, but Beltone is first to come to market with an aid that eliminates the need for an additional device, such as a remote control or pendant-like device worn around the neck to serve as a link between hearing aid and iPhone.
Todd Murray, president of Beltone North America, says the Beltone First will in fact be more than just a hearing aid. By connecting with the iPhone, the Beltone First will also double as “personal headphones,” and allow users to stream music, phone calls, GPS directions and other audio directly to the aids themselves. By offering the “best range of hearing experience,” Murray says, Beltone can help ensure those with hearing impairments “don’t miss out on life.”
The introduction of Beltone First underscores the intersection of a game-changing technology with the emerging needs of an aging Baby Boomer population. As you might guess, Beltone will be targeting people in their fifties, sixties and beyond, who are among those most sorely in need of hearing aids, and who are also ready to adapt to new technologies.
Look at advertisements online, or in a newspaper or magazine, and it seems technology belongs to the young. There’s no shortage of excited, unlined faces eagerly embracing new “smart” glasses or other wearable lifestyle technologies, which can do just about anything.
But there’s another, quieter trend at work today too: statistics show that Baby Boomers have been taking a (perhaps not so surprising) leap into all things digital. Baby Boomers have long been an active generation, and Boomers are determined to fight the effects of aging. That means using all tools at their disposal.
While iPhone apps may be dominated by “Angry Birds”and ringtones, and a ton of “fun” activities, there’s a growing market for “useful” apps that help improve or maintain everyday lives – and extend beyond calendars and note taking. For Boomers, there are apps that help turn phones into flashlights (in order to read menus better, for example), and even locate your car in the parking lot by using your GPS.Other apps can have an incredible impact on quality of life for the disabled, reading currency for the visually impaired, adjusting joint settings on a prosthetic limb and helping the speech impaired communicate.
“The real trend is toward connectivity,” says Beltone’s Murray. Noting that hearing aids have been ever shrinking over the last several years, Murray says too many Boomers have nonetheless been reluctant to embrace hearing aids. Many people “do not want to admit” they need aids. “They think the aids make them look older,” Murray says.
Industry statistics bear this reluctance out: The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as 360 million people, or about 5% of the global population, has a “disabling” hearing loss. Yet hearing aids only address 10 percent of that need, Reuters.com noted late last year.
There are a number of reasons that penetration rate has been so low. The stigma of wearing visible aids may be one reason; technology itself may also explain why those who need hearing aids the most have been slow to embrace them. In years past, hearing aids, using analog technology, simply made sounds louder – all sounds. And that meant that the wearer frequently was bombarded by noise from every angle. In recent years, modern hearing aids have gotten smaller while adopting digital technology alongside directional microphones and filters that can let the wearer turn his or her head to focus on sounds coming from different places.
This technology, miniaturized in a tiny device and coupled with a direct connection to an iPhone or other iOS device, represents the next generation of hearing aids, with Beltone First letting users easily customize their hearing experience like never before.
I mentioned the “restaurant scenario” at the beginning of this article; there are other possibilities as well. New apps will help the hearing aids to adjust to situations such as driving, where one would need to hear what’s going on in all surroundings. In that case, the iPhone could be used to turn off directional filtering. Or, in a crowd setting: imagine a version of Siri’s voice recognition software giving the hearing aid user a way to focus on one speaker and mute everything, and everyone, else.
Regardless of the app, Murray says, the graphical interface for Beltone First’s app will feature larger buttons, easy-to-navigate icons, and a library of settings available to the user at a touch or swipe of the screen.
It’s easy to see this device being a hit for a younger, plugged in generation. But will the cool factor of iPhone help Beltone First’s tiny hearing aid close the gap between those with hearing loss and those doing something about it among the Boomer generation? We’ll find out soon enough.
Scheduled for wide release over the coming weeks, Beltone First will be marketed in a new, tech-enabled way, through an educational push via social media, online video and other outreach efforts, reaching both hearing aid candidates and their families. Pricing for the premium product will be announced closer to availability.