Why Apple Watch Hearing Aid Control is a Big Breakthrough

When ReSound, Beltone and Starkey delivered apps for the new Apple Watch, they did a big favor for customers who bought their Made-for-iPhone hearing aids. ReSound’s Smart app for its Linx2 hearing aids, Beltone’s HearPlus app for its Legend hearing aids, and Starkey’s TruLink Hearing Control App for its Halo hearing aids all let users change volume and program settings with a simple tap of the Apple Watch face.

Apple watch for hearing aids

At first glance, the new Apple Watch apps seem pretty simple — maybe even redundant or unnecessary. After all, there are already other ways to manipulate your programmable hearing aids, including a broad variety of smartphone apps, very serviceable buttons on the hearing aid itself, and a range of custom controllers that you carry in your pocket. So what’s the big deal?

In fact, integrating hearing aid control with a smart wristwatch is a very big deal because it solves a growing user-interface problem that has limited customer satisfaction with hearing aids.

Today’s programmable hearing aids are loaded with features and functionality. Just for starters, users can select from multiple programs for a wide variety of listening situations, they can adjust the focus of their directional microphones, they can adjust the volume on either or both hearing aids, they can set them for use exclusively with the phone, and they can tweak the settings that control the wireless interaction between the two hearing aids.

But paradoxically, like a lot of other consumer electronics, the more features the hearing aids have, the harder they are for customers to use. If you’ve ever scratched your head trying to figure out how to set the clock or use the advanced features on your thermostat or programmable microwave oven, you know why many users simply give up and don’t bother to take advantage of many custom control options designed to get the best possible performance from their hearing aids.

As a result, hearing aid makers have been caught up in a dilemma. They are producing better hearing aids all the time, and charging customers thousands of extra dollars for exciting new features, but many customers aren’t taking advantage of the additional functionality. And there has been a predictable backlash against high prices for the features that customers aren’t using.

The new apps for the Apple Watch (and, we hope, other smart wristwatches in the near future) address this problem very effectively in three significant ways:

  1. Tiny buttons are no longer a problem. Fumbling with one, two or three buttons on the hearing aid is a prescription for frustration and mistakes. Older users who have lost some tactile sensation sometimes can’t even find the right buttons. And younger digital natives find it annoying to constantly fumble and poke at their hearing aids. In fact, the more you use the digital capabilities of your hearing aids, the more you find yourself sticking your fingers in your ears all day long. It’s no surprise even digitally savvy consumers often end up saying “Why bother?” and leaving their hearing aids on one basic setting without taking advantage of any extra features.
  2. You don’t need to carry an extra device. When hearing aid manufacturers saw that buttons often were not sufficient for users to get the most out of their hearing aids, they produced handheld controllers that you carried in your pocket. These controllers made it easier to manipulate the custom program settings and to raise and lower volume with the push of a (much larger) button. But the hearing aid controller was yet another device you always had to carry with you. A lot of customers, already tired of lugging around multiple other electronic gadgets, simply didn’t bother.
  3. You can leave your smartphone in your pocket. When smartphones and their apps became ubiquitous, hearing aid manufacturers hoped they finally had an easy solution to the problem. They developed nifty apps that turned your phone into a highly functional controller for your hearing aids. The graphical touch screen made it far easier to manage multiple programs than by hitting those tiny buttons on your hearing aids, and because you were already carrying your phone and using it in dozens of other ways, it didn’t require that you carry an extra device. There was just one problem. Users who were already tired of wearing out their pockets by dragging their phones out every time they got a text message, email or calendar alert didn’t need yet another interruption.

Enter the Apple Watch. Early reviewers of the Apple Watch note that dozens of frequent or repetitious tasks — such as reading a text message or viewing the next event on your calendar — become as easy as checking the time on your wrist. And all the reviewers mention the relief they feel at leaving their smartphones in their pockets most of the time.

By those standards, hearing aid control is a near-perfect smart watch app. Did someone turn up the background music in the restaurant? Tap your watch discreetly, and your noise reduction program kicks in. Can’t hear the speaker at the far-off podium? Tap your watch a few times until you get the volume where you want it. Are your Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids letting you know you’re getting a phone call at an inconvenient time? Tap your wristwatch to send the call to voicemail. It’s easy to imagine numerous situations where a smart watch app would make the difference between getting the most out of your hearing aids versus not bothering.

Are smart watch hearing aid control apps for everybody? Not yet, of course. Right now the Apple Watch is a luxury item, as is a $6,000 pair of Made-for-iPhone hearing aids. You can get excellent hearing aids for a lot less money. But if you want all the bells and whistles and are willing to pay for them, using a smart watch to activate all those extra features is a great way to make sure you’re able to take advantage of them easily.

Will more smart watch hearing aid apps be coming? For the time being, Apple is the only game in town, and ReSound, Beltone and Starkey are the only brands that have fully committed to Made-for-iPhone/Apple Watch hearing aid integration. But you can expect more to come, not just in the Apple environment, but also in the larger world of devices based on the Android operating system.

Made-for-Android hearing aids aren’t here yet, but leading hearing aid manufacturers and Android smart phone makers are looking at Apple’s success in the hearing aid market and making their first moves.

ReSound already offers a version of its Smart app for the Samsung Galaxy S5 phone on the Google Play Android apps store, allowing Galaxy S5 users to control ReSound Linx, Linx2 and Enzo Made-for-iPhone hearing aids. Can a ReSound Smart app for the Galaxy 5s-compatible Samsung smart watch be far behind?

And Big-Six hearing-aid manufacturer Oticon has already made its Connectline of peripherals compatible with Android phones through its own new app on the Google Play store. The app doesn’t control hearing aids directly, but it does enable Samsung and other Android phones to control the intermediate streamer that delivers Bluetooth audio to Oticon hearing aids.

As more manufacturers venture into both the Made-for-iPhone and Made-for-Android markets, prices inevitably will come down. Hopefully it won’t be long before mainstream customers can benefit not only from hearing aid/smartphone integration, but also from affordable smart watch apps that make it easier than ever to tap the power and full functionality of their digital hearing aids.