Hearing Aids: The First Wearable

Tech geeks from around the world converge on Las Vegas every year in January to unveil the latest gadgets at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The event that began in 1967 has grown to include more than 140,000 attendees and exhibitors. Some of the biggest household names in consumer electronics debuted at CES including the videocassette recorder (1970), the camcorder (1981), the DVD (1996) and the plasma television (2001).

This year, everyone was talking about a relatively new category of products, wearables. Wearables are designed to be discreet, often concealed in the form of watches, eyeglasses, or hidden inside or just behind the ear. Popular gadgets can track your steps, activity level, and total calories burned throughout the day. Some even track sleep patterns. You can even use the wearable devices to compete with your social media network to reach fitness goals.

Startup companies and major manufacturers alike are focused on developing the latest in wearable computing devices in a race to bring new options to consumers. The possibilities seem endless. A few of the new designs unveiled at CES offer wearers the ability to monitor blood pressure and temperature. One headband even tracks and records head injuries and concussions for athletes. You could also let your wearable keep score during your tennis match. You may never again have to rely on your notoriously unreliable partner to honestly report scores 

Sounds innovative … or is it? Wearables have actually been around for quite some time. Since the late 1950s to be exact; that’s when the invention of the microprocessor shrunk the size of hearing aids, enabling them to be worn behind the ear rather than the body. The first ear-level wearables were hearing aids. Hearing aids share many of the same features that are currently available in wearable devices. Let’s take a closer look at the similarities.

Durability: New features have been added to wearables to withstand water and extreme conditions, something hearing aids already do well 

Wireless connectivity: Wearables are now able to sync to audio devices offering enhanced listening for television and movies. Hearing aids can, too. The wireless connectivity in hearing aids allows music, phone calls and television shows to be streamed directly to your hearing aids at distances of up to 15 feet.

Apps: Apps can be used to control wearables, similar to hearing aid control apps like TruLink.

Analysts in the global wearable market recognize the similarities and include medical devices such as hearing aids and heart rate monitors in annual projections for the market. As the demand for these devices spreads, tech industry analysts expect the wearables market to top $30 billion by the year 2018, triple where it started in 2013 when first generation of consumer electronic wearables was released.

Despite the growth projections, industry experts believe there are still a few challenges that could hinder widespread success of wearable consumer products. The battery must be small yet offer extended battery life. The device must be easy to use and offer additional control and personalization with consumer-friendly applications. Consumer electronics companies focused on wearables are taking design and cosmetic appeal very seriously. Some have even partnered with fashion labels, Barney’s and Tory Burch to name a few, to ensure products are beautifully designed.

The biggest challenges facing wearables are things the hearing aid industry already does quite well. The average hearing aid runs for a week or more on a single battery smaller than the size of an aspirin. The designs are sleek and stylish customized to precisely match hair and skin tone.

It is exciting to consider how advancements in hearing aid technology could further enhance wearable performance and vice versa. How exciting to think that you may be able to use your hearing aids to monitor your health. What if your hearing aids could keep track of medications and appointments for seniors? Or monitor blood pressure and vital signs? GPS information could help seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Imagine if you could do everything you can do with a health monitor with just your hearing aids. The future of the industry is exciting and opportunities are endless!

See Halo mentioned by CNBC's Jon Fortt during CES here.

By Beth McCormick, Au.D.

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