According to the World Health Organisation, over 900 million people worldwide will have disabling hearing loss by 2050, up from 466 million in 2020. This figure represents a significant portion of the population, (around 12%, or one in ten people) who will face difficulties navigating societies and healthcare systems designed by and for hearing people.
Deafness is also a particular problem for our ageing population, as deafness is much more common in elderly people, often developing in older generations as we age. Indeed, among those older than 60 years, over 25% are affected by disabling hearing loss. While, specialised hearing aid makers have traditionally served this population, there is also a large potential market for hearables vendors.
What are hearables?
Simply put, a hearable is the combination of a hearing aid with added entertainment attributes, resulting in the creation of smart earwear. The technology represents the perfect convergence personalised audio and wellness technology.
The term was first coined in 2014 by product designer application specialist Nick Hunn in a blog post for a wearable technologies internet platform. In the post, Nick states that “the ear is the new wrist,” referring to the popularity and potential of smartwatches, and how smart ear devices could have even more upside.
But why is this case? Well, if you think about it, the ears are much better at multitasking than, say, the eyes. You can listen to a conversation or music while at the same time doing chores, reading, and playing sport.
How does the technology work?
For mild to moderate hearing loss, hearables would act like reading glasses, providing you with support to hear when the outside world is a little too loud in order to tune out the background noise.
In practice, to use the device a user would first need to take a short hearing test on a smartphone. With this data collected, your smartphone would analyse the results with an algorithm and then send a signal to the hearable about how best to calibrate your device to enhance what you hear.
The hearable itself is essentially a micro computer that fits in your ear canal and utilises wireless technology to supplement and enhance your listening experience.
However, there are stringent regulations in place to classify hearing aids as medical devices and so there will need to be changes to current legislation if this market is really going to take off. Such a device must also be tiny, nearly weightless, have a long lasting battery, and fit perfectly in each person’s anatomically unique ear canal to be comfortable for long stretches of time.
What are the use cases of the technology?
This smart technology is primarily designed to enhance the audio in the world around you, collecting your biometric data to determine when you’re struggling to hear and provide personalised audio-based solutions.
Big tech companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, and Amazon are also exploring hearables, looking at how they could help bridge the narrowing gap between hearing aids and headphones – with two way communication between an interface like Siri or Alexa also included. Much like is the case on your smartphone, this would allow you to make calls and search specific queries, all through your ear piece.
One of the most appealing aspects of the hearable movement is the potential to enhance the health of users. Like smartwatches, future hearables could have built-in optical sensors to measure vital signs including: heart rate, temperature, sleep patterns, and galvanic skin response.
Like with smartwatches, using inbuilt sensors, the technology could also incorporate features to suggest when someone has had a fall, or if recent research by IBM is to be believed, with the addition of an algorithm the devices could be used to predict the likelihood of the onset of psychosis within five years and diagnose schizophrenia with up to 83 percent accuracy by analysing speech components.
The market is booming but the question still remains if it will be one of the major tech players or a startup that manages to break away from the rest of the market competition.
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