When Oticon announced that its new OpnTM hearing aids would connect users to “the Internet of Things,” a lot of people scratched their heads. Many didn’t yet know exactly what the “IoT” was, much less what it might have to do with hearing aids.
The concept is simple: the Opn hearing aids connect to the internet through an iPhone utilizing the new Oticon ON app. The hearing aids then interact with and trigger other internet-connected devices using the new IFTTT (If This Then That) protocol.
Oticon’s initial product promotions touted the ability of the new hearing aids to alert users when someone rings the doorbell or when a baby monitor or smoke detector triggers an alarm. Oticon also showed them flipping on the lights in the house and activating the coffee maker when the hearing aids are turned on in the morning.
The Oticon-produced video below illustrates one potential application for an internet-connected hearing aid. The man in the video says “TV on.” His command is picked up by an Amazon echo, which triggers a chain of events that dims the lights, turns on his TV, and puts his hearing aids into the TV listening mode. All made possible via IoT-ready devices.
Let Your Imagination Run Wild
Audiologists are reporting that early users of the Opn hearing aids are requesting all kinds of other applications, ranging from text notifications to the parent of a child whose hearing-aid batteries are running low to automatic program switching using the iPhones geolocation capabilities; especially useful for setting up pre-programmed listening profiles for environments such as work, school, or home.
And those are only the first few applications from early adopters of a new technology that’s still in its infancy. As more sensor-laden devices connect to the internet, the number of ways your IoT-connected hearing aids might interact with other devices will only be limited by your imagination.
The Next Horizon
It’s easy to envision where future enhancements to the technology may lead. Some companies are already selling wireless music earphones (often referred to as hearables) that double as workout activity monitors and provide biometric data such as heart rate and blood oxygen saturation. Now think about putting those same technologies into your hearing aid, giving it the capability to transmit data over the internet in real-time to your doctor or home computer. Your speech amplifier suddenly doubles as an indispensable activity and health monitoring wearable.
A Marketing Gamble
Oticon’s decision to invest precious R&D dollars in a future-forward technology like IoT is a bet with a huge potential payoff. But its decision to invest its promotional dollars on a relatively obscure and futuristic technology – versus popular trending features like iPhone compatibility – is an interesting marketing gamble.
While the Opn is Made-for-iPhone certified, Oticon has chosen to focus its advertising and other promotional efforts on their next-generation sound processing capabilities and IoT internet connectivity. Competitors ReSound and Starkey, on the other hand, placed iPhone compatibility at the center of their recent product campaigns.
And for good reason. Streaming music and phone calls directly to one’s hearing aids is a game-changer for anyone who can’t easily put on headphones or hold a mobile phone up to their ear without creating audible feedback and distortion. The new generation of Made-for-iPhone products also finally eliminated the bulky intermediary wireless streaming device that had to be carried or hung from a cord on your neck to re-transmit audio from your phone or MP3 player to your hearing aids.
Hearing aid users love wireless streaming from the smartphone because it’s an easy feature to understand, it’s easy to activate, and they use it all day long. In its public financial reports, ReSound credited much of its recent strong financial performance to the success of its Made-for-iPhone products.
A Different Path to iPhone Connectivity
Oticon took a different path to iPhone connectivity. Responding to ReSound’s first-to-market iPhone connectivity, Oticon CEO Søren Nielsen said Oticon would not rush a Made-for-iPhone product to market by diverting R&D resources away from more important efforts to improve speech processing in its hearing aids. Instead he indicated Oticon would wait until its next-generation digital chip platform was robust enough to accommodate vastly improved sound processing along with full-featured wireless connectivity.
As a result, Oticon was later to the Made-for-iPhone party than its Big-Six competitors, ReSound and Starkey. But now, with Opn’s new Velox chipset and sound processing platform, it can comfortably promote a technological frontrunner.
Oticon has not only delivered iPhone streaming but also loaded Opn with other sophisticated features including next-generation of speech-in-noise sound processing as well as two separate processors for wireless communication – one for audio streaming from iPhones and other devices, and the other to manage ear-to-ear coordination of the hearing aids. Note: We’re hoping future Opn models will integrate a telecoil option for enhanced hearing in large lecture halls and auditoriums fitted with hearing loops.
Focus on the Future
Oticon is taking the long view by blazing a new path in an IoT/IFTTT market that’s still in its infancy. It’s an old joke that the danger of leading the way in any new market is that you may end up like the very first pioneers of the American West – with arrows in your back instead.
But if the Internet of Things takes off as quickly as other web-based phenomena have over the years, Oticon may find it was a risk worth taking. It will be in the enviable position as “first-mover” in a market where internet connectivity will ultimately be a “gotta have” feature, versus the “wanna have” capability that it is today.
About David Copithorne
David has been blogging about hearing issues for a long time. As someone who has progressed from mild to profound hearing loss, he has had a chance to experience almost everything that the hearing industry has to offer. He currently utilizes cochlear implants in both ears. Read more of David’s musings at the Hearing Mojo blog.
Last modified: September 2, 2016