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I Tested EssilorLuxottica’s Visionary New Hearing Aid Glasses. Do They Work?

"Wherever I looked, I could hear. It was really like some kind of weird eavesdropping super power—the kind you always expect hearing aids to give you."
Andy With Bose Glasses

Hearing aid industry consultant Andrew Bellavia tests out Nuance’s prototype hearing aid glasses.

In a groundbreaking move, EssilorLuxottica, an international leader in advanced lens technology and eyewear design, has announced its expansion into the hearing solutions market. By leveraging its acquisition of Israeli startup Nuance Hearing, EssilorLuxottica is poised to introduce a revolutionary hearing product tailored to address the needs of a staggering 1.25 billion people worldwide suffering from mild to moderate hearing loss.

The hearing solutions market remains largely underpenetrated due to various deterrents, including the visibility of traditional hearing aids, discomfort, and cost. EssilorLuxottica intends to address these deterrents with a new over-the-counter hearing aid that incorporates Nuance Hearing’s advanced hearing technology into EssilorLuxottica’s fashionable eyewear.

The new hearing aid glasses look just like any other pair, but with the added benefit of discreet audio amplification to help boost conversations in the most difficult listening situations. Unlike previous attempts at hearing aid glasses, there are no unsightly wires or tubes running down to your ears—and to maximize comfort, your ear canals are left completely open.

But are these new glasses up to all the hype? I was lucky enough to put an early prototype to the test in EssilorLuxottica’s “Experience Center” in Milan, Italy. I tried the glasses in a variety of listening conditions, from a moderately-noisy office to a very loud restaurant. Overall, the glasses worked surprisingly well, but there were some issues that the company will need to work to address before the product launch in late 2024. Keep reading for my full review.

Who is EssilorLuxottica?

EssilorLuxottica, with headquarters in Paris and Milan, comes in at number 262 on the list of the largest companies in the world. In 2022, the company reported $23.4B in global revenue and assets of $67.6B. They are the largest eyewear company in the world, and are involved in every stage of the eyewear business from R&D and manufacturing all the way to retail—with over 18,000 stores selling prescription and non-prescription glasses and sunglasses.

EssilorLuxottica is the company behind most of the world’s best-known eyewear brands. They are the exclusive purveyors of Ray-Ban, Oakley, Persol, and more, and also manufacture and sell brands like Giorgio Armani, Bulgari, Burberry, Chanel, Coach, Dolce&Gabbana, Ferrari, Michael Kors, Prada, Ralph Lauren, and Versace.

Eyewear Brands Essilorluxottica 2023 07 29 15 54 23

Well-known eyewear brands manufactured and sold by EssilorLuxottica.

In terms of retail, EssilorLuxottica is the company behind LensCrafters, Target Optical, Sunglass Hut, Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Pearle Vision. They also partner with 300,000 third-party stores “from independent opticians to distribution chains”. 

The name “EssilorLuxottica” came from the corporate merger of Essilor, a French ophthalmic optics company, and Luxottica, an Italian eyewear conglomerate. Merged in 2018, the combined resources of these two companies have allowed EssilorLuxottica to have a more extensive reach into all areas of the eyewear market.

Who is Nuance Hearing?

Nuance Hearing is an Israeli startup that, according to its website, “leads the world in directional hearing” with its proprietary acoustic beamforming technology. The company was founded by two brothers, Yehuda and Zohar Zisapel, with the intention of finding “a technological solution to the challenge of understanding conversation in a packed room.”

What is directional hearing and why does it matter?

Directional hearing, sometimes referred to as “directionality”, is one of the most effective ways of overcoming the so-called “cocktail party problem”, or difficulty hearing conversation in background noise. Directionality works by helping to isolate voices coming from in front of you while reducing sounds coming from all around. Beamforming directionality is a more advanced version of traditional directionality which isolates voices with a much narrower “beam” of focus.

It so happens that hearing better in background noise is the #1 priority for people with hearing loss when it comes to purchasing hearing aids. Difficulty hearing in background noise is one of the first problems that people experience as they begin to lose their hearing with age, and one of the most persistent challenges for hearing aid manufacturers. So, solving the cocktail party problem is sort of the holy grail for hearing tech companies, especially if they want to penetrate the large underserved market of people with mild to moderate hearing loss. 

Directional hearing tech from Nuance Hearing

While I consider Nuance Hearing mostly a software innovator, focused on developing ultra-fast beamforming and direction selection algorithms, they have also produced some actual hardware to showcase their tech. The Nuance Hearing “Sound Selector” (pictured below), which has been positively reviewed by experts, helps to isolate and amplify key voices over background chatter.

Nuance Hearing

On its website Nuance Hearing claims its products yield a “direction coefficient” of 15 decibels, which is 3x the “world’s most advanced real-time products”.

In fact, Nuance Hearing’s Sound Selector has become the foundation for Starkey’s popular Table Microphone accessory, which wirelessly streams boosted voices directly to Starkey’s latest hearing aid models. Starkey is one of the top 5 global hearing aid manufacturers, and a company that is laser-focused on speech recognition in background noise, so it says a lot that they’ve adopted Nuance Hearing’s tech.

Nuance Hearing’s proven history in software and hardware development provides the perfect springboard for EssilorLuxottica to pursue its ambitions in the hearing aid market. The challenge now is deploying Nuance Hearing’s directional hearing tech in a stylish pair of smart glasses.

Test driving EssilorLuxottica’s prototype hearing aid glasses

While I’m not at liberty to discuss the exact tech in the prototype, I’ve been given the green light to talk about my own personal experience using the glasses. I tried them at EssilorLuxottica’s Experience Center, which was moderately noisy, and again (later that day) at a raucous seafood restaurant in downtown Milan. Generally speaking, my experience was extremely positive, but there are some caveats I’ll cover below.

First, there’s something you should know about me. I don’t have hearing loss. But, I do have difficulty hearing in background noise. I actively avoid going out to loud restaurants and bars because I find it exhausting trying to keep up with the conversations. So, my own selfish personal agenda was to find out if these glasses might help me enjoy a night out again.

Using the glasses in moderate noise

Using the glasses at the Experience Center, I couldn’t personally see the benefit at first. Because the environment was relatively quiet, it made no difference whether I had the glasses on or off; I could still hear the people in front of me loud and clear. What I could hear better was my own voice—that was something I didn’t enjoy (but I quickly got used to it). 

I started my test upstairs in a meeting room and then walked through an open-plan office area where a number of EssilorLuxottica staff were quietly working on their laptops. I still couldn’t see any benefit with the glasses on, but I did notice that this wasn’t just any other pair of hearing aids. 

In Tortona

My first test of the prototype glasses was in a room just like this one. Here, myself and colleagues Andy Bellavia, and Tom Powers discuss the experience we all had with the prototype.

Super hearing powers

Wherever I looked, I could hear. It was really like some kind of weird eavesdropping super power—the kind you always expect hearing aids to give you (spoiler: they never do). In all my hearing aid testing over the years as an expert reviewer of hearing aids, I’d really never experienced anything quite like this. It was cool … but a little disorienting at first. 

After walking through the office area, we made our way back downstairs to the public space, which was filled with visitors by that point. I was chatting with Tami Harel, the chief audiologist at Nuance, when I finally realized the benefits (to myself) of the glasses.

I spotted a large group of visitors gathered at one of the many brand experience displays and went and stood with them. At the same time, I pointed myself at Tami, and continued listening to her speak. The visitors were all speaking quietly so as not to disturb others, and Tami was speaking quietly too. She was standing about 5 feet from me, off to the side of the group. 

I was in the middle of the group looking at Tami, and I could still hear her loud and clear. When I removed the glasses, I could no longer make out the words she was saying at all. 

Using the glasses in loud noise

That night, we headed to an Italian seafood restaurant in the heart of downtown Milan for part 2 of our prototype testing experience. Here’s a picture of the dining area before it was filled with people:

Restaurant

A private dining room was later filled with staff from Nuance Hearing and EssilorLuxottica.

As you can see from the picture, this dining room was extremely challenging from an acoustics perspective—reflective surfaces from floor to ceiling! The room was soon filled with around 30 people, all standing in the space between the tables and talking loudly in English and Italian.

For me, this was the ultimate test. These are the kinds of situations I try to avoid, and I was finally going to see if the glasses would make a difference.

I found myself in a small group of 3-4 others. There was noise coming from all around the room and plenty of reverberation. I was listening and talking with a heightened alertness, trying to focus on the people in front of me, but also trying to think about the glasses and whether or not they were doing anything to help me.

After about 5 minutes passed, I relaxed a bit. I’d stopped focusing on the glasses and just found myself enjoying the conversations I was having. It was at this point that I realized that I was doing exactly the thing that had become so hard for me over the past few years. Just being present, not straining, not focusing, just having a good time and chatting with the others in my group.

Long story short, it was eventually time for me to pass the prototype on to one of my colleagues. This is where things unfortunately went downhill a bit. Removing the glasses confirmed that they were indeed helping me. Suddenly, the conversations were muddy, and I found myself feeling tired, wishing my turn with the glasses hadn’t ended so soon.

We eventually sat down to eat, and things quieted down for the meal. I had a lot to mull over. It was an eye-opening experience that showed me that the future of hearing aids may not be limited to only people with hearing loss. If young people with “normal” hearing, like myself, could find a real benefit with hearing aids, it might help to finally break through the stubborn barrier of old-age stereotypes and hearing aid stigma.

Addressing the kinks

This wouldn’t be a well-rounded review if I didn’t include some of the negatives I observed during my testing. The biggest issue, which I’ve already mentioned, was hearing my own voice louder with the prototype glasses on. While it was briefly annoying, I don’t think it will be a deal breaker for two reasons. First, hearing your own voice louder with hearing aids is normal, and we audiologists know that most people will get used to it pretty quickly (just like I did in my test). And second, I know that the engineers at EssilorLuxottica are well aware of the issue and working hard to improve the own-voice experience.

Other than my own voice taking some getting used to, I also heard the occasional acoustic feedback (high-pitch whistling / screeching sound) while using the prototype. Acoustic feedback occurs when sound from the speakers enters the microphones and becomes re-amplified repeatedly in what’s called a feedback loop. This is an age-old problem in the world of hearing aids, and there’s a ton of great technology out there to suppress acoustic feedback. So I have no doubt that the team at EssilorLuxottica will find a way to address this issue prior to launch.

The last issue worth mentioning, which is again, nothing huge, was that the directionality in the hearing aids was so good that it could sometimes cause you to miss something you wanted to hear. For example, when I was walking and talking with Tami in the Experience Center offices, I noticed that her voice was not as loud as whatever it was I was looking at. This is actually another common issue with all directional hearing aids, and one that some companies have lately been addressing by adding accelerometers to their hearing aids. By detecting when you’re moving, some hearing aids can switch into an all-around listening mode that helps you hear people at your side while on the move. I’m hopeful that this is something EssilorLuxottica will address in the future (but again, more of a nice-to-have).

Why I think EssilorLuxottica will succeed

Aside from cleverly targeting the issues of comfort, cost, and visibility, EssilorLuxottica is well-equipped to deliver a finished product at scale that works as advertised. And with access to hundreds of thousands of retail locations, the company is extremely well-positioned to increase global access to a product that consumers actually want.

People with untreated hearing loss often experience diminished quality of life, and it can contribute to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, safety issues, mobility limitations, and decreased job performance. While EssilorLuxottica’s hearing aid glasses won’t treat the most severe cases of hearing loss, they offer to introduce over a billion people to the benefits of hearing amplification. And thankfully, the vast majority of people who experience the benefits of amplification never want to go back to a world of silence, strain, and fatigue.

Another perspective

Looking to hear from someone with a hearing loss? I highly recommend reading Andy Bellavia's review of his experience with the prototype glasses. Here's a sample from his review: "The real magic came when I put the glasses on. My understanding of the first person’s speech was 100%, and nearly so for the second. Only occasionally did I miss a word, a vast improvement over unaided listening."

More coverage from HearingTracker

HearingTracker audiologist Matthew Allsop provides his perspective on EssilorLuxottica's new hearing aid glasses.

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Abram Bailey Aud

Founder and President

Dr. Bailey is a leading expert on consumer technology in the audiology industry. He is a staunch advocate for patient-centered hearing care and audiological best practices, and welcomes any technological innovation that improves access to quality hearing outcomes. Dr. Bailey holds an Au.D. from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.