Android 10 Launched with Focus on Hearing Loss Accessibility
Google's long-awaited update to its Android smartphone operating system is finally here. As expected, it's chock-full of major accessibility improvements for people with hearing loss and hearing aids. And it's already providing wireless streaming directly to hearing aids from Google's Android Pixel phones.
Android.com has updated it's homepage to reflect the Android 10 launch.
Android 10 is here
Android 10 (formerly known as the Android Q beta) delivers on Google's much-hyped promise to deliver the features that people with hearing loss have been clamoring for. In addition to wireless streaming to hearing aids, the features include live transcriptions of conversations, live captioning of web videos and podcasts, and amplification with sound processing for better clarity and comprehension of smartphone audio.
Available on Google Pixel phones now, and from other manufacturers "this year"
The new software is a major step in meeting demand for Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids. While Apple collaborated with major hearing aid manufacturers years ago to deliver **Made-for-iPhone hearing aids, Google has only recently started to keep pace. Google is now committed to helping hearing aid manufacturers deliver Android-compatible hearing aids through Google’s new Audio Streaming for Hearing Aid (ASHA) protocol. It's been a long wait, but with Android 10, it is finally delivering.
Android 10 is available starting today on Google Pixel phones via a software update. Samsung and other manufacturers have had access to beta versions of the new operating system in recent months, and Google says "we're working with our partners to launch and upgrade devices to Android 10 this year."
GN Hearing and Cochlear Ltd. first to offer Android streaming
GN Hearing is the first hearing aid maker to announce support for Android 10 with its ReSound LiNX Quattro and Beltone Amaze hearing aid models. The hearing aids will connect wirelessly with Google's Pixel 3, Pixel 3 XL, Pixel 3a, and Pixel 3a XL phones that have updated to Android 10. Streaming will be available with a software update to the hearing devices.
In its news release, GN revealed that its technology development partner, Cochlear Ltd., will also provide direct wireless audio streaming from Pixel phones to its Nucleus 7 cochlear implant sound processors.
Like Made-for-iPhone hearing aids, Android 10 utilizes the Bluetooth LE (low energy) protocol. It is designed to provide hearing aid wearers with wireless audio streaming over extended periods without having to change or recharge their batteries. The new technology is based on a recent hearing aid specification, ASHA on Bluetooth Low Energy Connection-Oriented Channels, which Google developed in collaboration with GN Hearing and Cochlear Ltd.
Android 10 streaming for other hearing aid brands
GN Hearing noted that "the streaming specification is open source, which allows other manufacturers of hearing aids and Android devices to offer direct audio streaming in the near future." So it's a sure bet that other hearing aid makers will soon be announcing their own Android-compatible wireless streaming solutions.
Note: An earlier version of this story referenced a questionable claim made in Hearing Tracker’s Hearing Aid Forum regarding direct streaming between Android and Oticon Opn. This reference has been removed.
Universal Bluetooth connectivity in hearing aids
Phonak and Unitron (both Sonova brands) are the only hearing aid brands that offer universal Bluetooth wireless streaming. With a chipset that handles both Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth LE protocols, their hearing aids can stream audio directly to and from any Bluetooth-enabled audio device, including Android and iPhone smartphones. Previously, all other hearing aid makers had to use an additional audio streaming accessory to provide wireless connectivity with Android phones.
As more smartphone makers make Android 10 available, more hearing aid manufacturers will surely integrate the ASHA hearing-aid streaming protocol to provide direct wireless streaming from Android smartphones. The question is whether hearing aid manufacturers will integrate their devices with Made-For-iPhone and Android’s ASHA protocol, or if they’ll go down the path of Sonova to deliver a universal Bluetooth solution.
More Android 10 features for hearing aid wearers
In addition to wireless streaming of audio, Google has integrated additional features for hearing aid wearers, some of which have already been available as Android apps. We've written about them before, so be sure to follow the links if you want more details.
Last May, we wrote that the Live Caption app in the new Android operating system would be a "killer app," and our assessment hasn't changed. With a single tap, Live Caption will automatically caption videos, podcasts, and audio messages, including videos you've recorded yourself. Utilizing advanced speech recognition software, it immediately transcribes voice to text and presents captions on the screen. Google says the app is expected to go live this fall. In the meantime, beta testers who have tried it out have raved about its capabilities, which are similar to those of its cousin, the Live Transcribe app.
We wrote about this Pixel phone app last February, predicting it would be a hit. It's now been available to download for a while, and people with hearing loss already swear by it. It uses the smartphone mic to pick up audio from conversation partners and provides accurate real-time transcriptions that can get you back into almost any conversation. Hearing Tracker contributor Shari Eberts and a group of her friends in the New York hearing loss community, who otherwise use iPhones, have gone so far as to buy inexpensive Pixel phones solely for these kinds of conversations.
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We also wrote about the Android Sound Amplifier app last February, and it's currently available from the Google Play store. It filters out background noise and amplifies sound according to frequencies personalized to your hearing, which can be a huge help in understanding speech. Google said it has upgraded the app to include a sound visualizer enabling you to "see" the sounds that are present in your environment.
There are dozens of other improvements in the Android 10 update, but those are the most prominent features that hearing aid users have been waiting for. Click here for a complete description of what else is available in Android 10.
For people with hearing loss, Google's Android 10 announcement is a major milestone because it injects healthy competition and more choice into the hearing aid market. Given that it's a market dominated by only a five major hearing aid manufacturers and only two dominant smartphone solutions—iPhone and Android phones—more competition is a welcome development.
With all consumers tethered to their phones today, universal connectivity has rapidly become a market requirement for hearing aid makers. The solutions that Apple pioneered with its Made-for-iPhone hearing aids may well be amplified exponentially by Google's delivery of similar and new solutions to the much larger universe of Android phone users.
Ever since GN ReSound introduced the first Made-for-iPhone hearing aids, it has been at the forefront of delivering on this promise of smartphone connectivity, and now it's jumped to a quick lead in the Android market with its Pixel phone solution for hearing aids. But as with the Made-for-iPhone market, it won't take long for other manufacturers to catch up.
In the meantime, Sonova's Phonak and Unitron brands no longer will be able to claim they are the only hearing aids offering true wireless connectivity with both iPhones and Android phones, unimpeded by an intermediary streaming device. Sonova still will have an advantage as the only hearing aid maker connecting to all Bluetooth Classic-enabled devices as well as smartphones utilizing the Bluetooth LE protocol. But now other manufacturers, by providing both Made-for-iPhone and Made-for-Android capabilities, will meet the needs of a huge portion of that market and be able to compete far more effectively than before.