Bluetooth's Auracast Will Open a New World of Audio for Hearing Aid Users
Auracast™ is posed to completely transform how Bluetooth hearing aids and other listening devices connect to wireless audio streams. Announced yesterday, the new Bluetooth connectivity platform is designed to enable an audio transmitter, such as a smartphone, laptop, television, or public address (PA) system to broadcast audio to an unlimited number of nearby Bluetooth audio receivers—including hearing aids, cochlear implants, earbuds, and similar Auracast-enabled devices.
Auricast will allow you to tap into audio sources the same way you connect to WiFi networks.
Isn’t This a Solved Problem?
Auracast sounds like a new solution for an already solved problem. Hearing aid telecoils (t-coils) have been around for decades, and they provide a reliable means for picking up broadcast audio in any location that has been “looped” with a magnetic induction system. Anyone who has used a telecoil knows they are tremendously useful for understanding distant speech in public spaces.
There are some issues though. Telecoils don’t always provide the greatest sound quality: loops require regular maintenance, there can be dead spots in transmission coverage, and they are reliant on good hearing aid programming at your audiologist’s office. Hearing loops also lack privacy because everyone has access to the same transmitted sound. On top of that, hearing loops can be relatively expensive and labor-intensive to install—which is why telecoil listening isn’t available in most places.
What Does Auricast Mean for Hearing Aid Users?
Auracast promises to change all that. It’s like a telecoil on steroids. Access to streamed sound will no longer be limited by the physical bounds of the hearing loop cable, audio streams will be accessed securely and privately (like a secure WiFI network), transmission infrastructure will be cheap to deploy and maintain, and audio quality will no longer be reliant upon quirks of electromagnetism.
At the airport, you’ll be able to receive important flight/gate changes and other announcements by streaming them into your hearing device. Likewise, if you’re attending a lecture or a play, an Auracast transmitter will notify your smartphone that streaming audio is available. Then you’ll use the Auracast Assistant to simply find and select that sound stream and have it transmitted to your Bluetooth listening device.
Previously, the only practical options for these types of situations were telecoils or transmitters like FM or infrared receivers (which, like telecoils, have their own set of drawbacks). In this way, Auracast is expected to serve as the next-generation assistive listening system.
Auracast broadcasts are beamed digitally to an Auracast-enabled Assistant (eg, smartphone, computer, tablet, etc) which is paired with the hearing device.
The developers of Auracast envision many other possible uses for the technology, including:
- Service counters/ticket booths/bank tellers: The system can serve as an audio transmission system that creates an improved counter experience by facilitating 1:1 interaction between customers and staff.
- Multi-language translator and touring services: Auracast is also an alternative for providing secure, cost-effective, and hygienic translation and tour services for visitors, replacing infrared, FM, or wired headsets. Visitors can listen to simultaneous interpretation services without the need for any additional devices being handed out by the facility or complicated infrastructure—providing visitors with a more convenient bring-your-own-device experience.
- Sharing audio: Want a friend to listen to a song, movie, or podcast playing on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop? You can share it with them using the Auracast Assistant.
- Unmuting muted TVs. Bars, fitness centers, and airports often have televisions with the volume turned low or muted. Auracast-enabled systems would allow you to steam and listen to the sound, and not disturb others.
“Hearing and understanding speech in various environments can be a daily struggle for people with any degree of hearing loss,” says Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “Audio quality innovations can benefit everyone, while also improving communication access to those with hearing loss. Having choices in technology to meet the varying needs of people with hearing loss is critical. The advent of technologies like Auracast™ broadcast audio has the potential to give people who wear hearing aids and cochlear implants an important new option for hearing access in their everyday lives.”
Signs like these designate areas where inductive loop systems are employed and telecoils can be used.
The Telecoil is Still Far from Obsolete
As great as the new Auracast broadcast audio technology is advertised to be, it does have at least one major drawback: you’ll need a Bluetooth-compatible hearing device and Auracast-enabled transmitter (eg, smartphone, computer, tablet, etc) for it to work.
While it’s true that an increasing number of hearing aids offer Bluetooth audio streaming technology, many do not. For example, most of the smaller in-the-ear (ITE) custom hearing aids like completely-in-the-canal (CIC) and in-the-canal (ITC) hearing aids don’t have enough battery capacity necessary for practical use of Bluetooth technology, and the available space for components inside the hearing aid is also sometimes an issue. Additionally, the more economical/basic technology levels of hearing aid lines are less likely to feature Bluetooth connectivity. Most BTEs, RICs, and custom hearing aids can include a telecoil. It should also be pointed out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires certain venues to offer assistive listening systems, so your telecoil is great for those locations using telecoil-enabled neck loops. All this means the telecoil’s status as a valuable listening option for a large population of hearing device users will remain for now.
Additionally, some long-time advocates for telecoil technology are wary about yesterday’s announcement, emphasizing that—assuming it works well—it still could take years or more than a decade to fully employ. “As a consumer advocate I am excited that this technology is being touted as a possible replacement for public assistive listening systems,” writes audiologist and HLAA Hearing Loop Advocate Juliëtte Sterkens to HearingTracker. “But these Auracast systems must still be invented yet. And while it may be true that Bluetooth LE Audio will be available starting in late 2022, due to the lifecycle of replacing hearing instruments, it may take ten years or more for some people to benefit from this new broadcast audio technology. Without large studies that confirm that this technology will work for all persons with hearing loss regardless of the make, model of hearing technology on worn the ear, and with acceptable audio delays…”
The bottom line is the telecoil is definitely not dead; it remains an elegant solution for listening to far-away speakers and/or in noisy places that employ a loop system (these venues are often designated by telecoil sign like the one shown above.) So, at least for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to request a hearing aid with a telecoil when possible and/or when it’s recommended by your hearing care professional.
Bluetooth Opening a New World of Audio
However, acknowledging the above, Bluetooth systems like Auracast will continue to evolve in important ways that may significantly improve communication in a vast range of settings and situations. It’s also a safe bet that most or all hearing devices in the future—noting that the definition of “future” is up for debate—will implement streaming technology. That’s why Auracast really is a big deal; it may open a new world of audio versatility for hearing devices, earbuds, and speakers.
I am wondering how this will work if one is in an area where there are several bluetooth transmitters active - will they compete with each other? How do you choose the one you want to hear and not the others?
They will show up on your smartphone, and you'll pick the one you want, much like the way wireless networks appear now. Info on Auracast.
I don't understand why you seem to indicate that it is important for audio streams to be able to be accessed securely and privately? What ever is being transmitted over the stream is concurrently being transmitted audibly as well. When the audibly transmitted information is not transmitted "securely and privately," why should the associated audio stream?
Auracast can be used to transmit audio from a podium, but might also be used to transmit audio from other sources, like from your tablet. And you may allow multiple users to securely watch a private video on your tablet and stop others from listening in.
I wonder if this will work with any bluetooth enabled hearing aid or whether you will require a new hearing aid capable of using Auracast
The hearing aid will have to support Bluetooth LE Audio.