Next Generation Hearing: Meet Decibels and Auricle
In today's episode of The HearingTracker Podcast, host Steve Taddei talks to two creative young entrepreneurs looking to revolutionize the way we hear.
Nick Morgan-Jones, the founder of Decibels, wants to throw out the term "hearing aids" and make hearing aids less medical, more fashionable, and a lot more visible. Nick tried hearing aids for the first time when he was 10 years old, but the stigma of wearing hearing aids and going through the healthcare system was enough to put Nick off wearing hearing aids until adulthood. Decibels are a new kind of hearing enhancement device that Nick hopes will help to reposition the hearing aid as product people actually want to wear.
And Pedro Costa, the founder Auricle, asks "why is it that all high quality headphones always have to block our ears?" Pedro, along with his team in Copenhagen have invented a brand new type of earphones that rest clip onto the tragus of the ear and stimulate hearing through bone conduction. Pedro says you can "feel the beat literally" with Auricle, and that the open-ear design is safer in situations that require awareness, like biking.
Steve Taddei: Hey, I’m Dr. Steve Taddei and welcome back to The Hearing Tracker Podcast.
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a bright-white glossy earbud, I bet there’s one iconic company that’ll come to mind. [Iphone ding]. Of course I’m referring to Apple and their extremely popular Earpods. Tech like this is common, but earbuds haven’t always been fashionable. In fact, it all started with headphones in the 1800s. Back then, they were massive, sometimes weighing over 10 pounds, and mainly used by telephone and switchboard operators.[Switchboard Sounds] The first recorded use of earbud-like headphones was in the 1890s thanks to the French Engineer Ernest Mercedier. Fast forward over a hundred years, and nearly everyone has a wireless set of earbuds for music and calls.
On that note, our first episode of 2022 is all about some of the new ear tech companies and the ways that they’re reinventing the form factor. From headphones to earbuds, to the next gen of hearing tech.
Nick Morgan-Jones: This really started out as a personal project.
Steve Taddei: That is Nick Morgan-Jones, the creator of a hearing enhancement product called Decibels.
Nick Morgan-Jones: And I made a video in my bedroom saying hey I’m gonna design my own pair of hearing enhancers that I actually want to wear. “Hi, I’m Nick and this is actually gonna be a video series on how to not build hearing aids, because that’s precisely what I want to do.” And then I kinda let the whole world hold me accountable to that because I just told everyone… oh god now I have to go ahead and actually do it. I think maybe the starting point is that we set out here really not to try and reinvent the wheel. I think there’s a lot of really great hearing technology out there and the big problem that is surrounding this is not the technology. In my opinion. The problem is that no one wants it, no one wants to wear i
Steve Taddei: While they may sound harsh, Nick’s not lying. Based on Marketrak findings, adoption rates for hearing aids in the US are roughly 30% on the high end. Even in countries where devices are free, adoption rates are still less than 50%. This is a large part of what’s behind Nick’s work and Decibels.
Nick Morgan-Jones: We’re really trying to re-position the wheel rather than reinvent it. And that means kinda redesigning the form factor into something that people want to wear. We have the hearing aid industry and the earbud industry kinda very close to one another. There are some key differences between them of course. But we really want to try and marry these two to really take the benefits of the maybe more consumer facing side of ear worn technology and then approaching the let’s say more medical side and integrating the best of both worlds into a product that people kind of really want to wear. Not just from a functional perspective but on an emotional perspective as well
Steve Taddei: Nick's stance and passion for this project, derive from personal experience as he's had hearing loss since he was a child.
Nick Morgan-Jones: I found out around age ten that I had hearing loss. And this was because, I think I was in class at school and one of the teachers said “who’s alarm keeps going off?”. And I’m looking around going “yea who’s alarm keeps going off?”. I can’t even hear it, it’s my alarm on my watch which is going off and annoying everyone else.
And when I found out I was going to get hearing aids, the feeling I had was “Oh wow I’m going to have superhuman hearing. And I think the ten year old that I was thought I was going to be like some spy kid who could hear through walls and stuff like that. And yea that dissipated very quickly as soon as I got them. Everything that surrounded it, this very medicalized experience, having to go into a local hospital where the audiology department was to get my first hearing aids, made the whole thing a lot more serious than I maybe felt like I wanted it to be.
Steve Taddei: Nick's use of hearing aids didn't last long. In fact, he told me he ended up wearing them for a grand total of 5 days. And he didn't revisit assistive technology until he was entering college. Even still, he didn't like wearing them due to the style and stigmas
Nick Morgan-Jones: As a hearing aid wearer myself, I feel like the hearing aid industry is kinda one of the very few industries that stigmatizes it’s own products by saying that they should be invisible. At least designing them to be invisible and then saying “hey buy this product that you don’t want anyone to see.” I feel like it’s a little bit counterproductive in terms of if you want to try and excite people in order to adopt a new piece of technology, something they don’t want, telling them that they should be trying to hide it might not be the best way to go about it. At least in my opinion.
Steve Taddei: Not without a sense of irony, the Universe gave Nick a chance to address this very issue and do something about it.
Nick Morgan-Jones: I was studying product design and engineering and in my third and final year I had the chance to try to redesign and piece of medical equipment. And I thought okay this is, this is something that I want to have a go at doing. I want to redesign hearing aids because I don’t want to wear a stigmatized product. I want to confidently wear something that improves my ability to communicate with other people.
Steve TaddeI: Nick worked on what would later be called Decibels throughout his time in academia. In 2020, he quit his job to focus on bringing the concept and design to life. Nick wanted to make a device that he would feel comfortable without the stigmas of a traditional hearing aid… he wanted his device to be unapologetically visible. I asked Nick to describe Decibels and how it differs from other devices
Nick Morgan-Jones: The important thing for us was to not have something in the ear and not have something behind the ear. So we had to try and find anywhere else. And this is sitting in front of the ear, let’s say more on the temple of the head. And so you have the receiver, the speaker, that also goes in the ear canal. As you would see on a lot of receiver in the canal hearing aids. And we also have a small security part that hooks behind the ear in order to keep it structurally in place.
So this idea really came from the eyewear industry and there’s a lot of really fashionable eyewear out there that people associate with and there are certain details with glasses and sunglasses. Small design details that people associate specifically with that kind of product. So we’re actually utilizing a lot of these kind of details for hearing enhancement products as well.
Steve Taddei: At the beginning of this episode, Nick mentioned that this journey started with him posting a video online and he has continued to do this. I think one of the coolest things about his project is that you can always stop in and see where he's at. From breakthroughs in development, to general problems that anyone with hearing aids can likely associate with
Nick Morgan-Jones: [Audio from video blog] Last week I was on holiday and I thought it would be a great idea to have a go at standup paddle boarding while wearing my normal hearing aids. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’ve got the balance of Bambi. So pretty much as soon as I stood up I fell into the water and one of my hearing aids stopped working.
Steve Taddei: One of his other recent updates, follows a little covert test where he wore a new form factor in a social setting to see people's responses.
Nick Morgan-Jones: So what I did was I printed out some plastic prototypes of these hearing enhancers that we’re designing. They had no electronics in them. They were just plastic forms. And I just wanted to see how would people react when I wore them because this is really the problem we’re trying to solve. Can I wear something in public that I feel comfortable wearing and that does not pull me into a category of “oh you have a disability”. This is not something that I wanted to be associated with me in a certain social context.
So I wore these for a whole weekend. And I was invited to a small party on a boat with around fifteen people who I’d never met before. And I thought “oh this is perfect, as terrifying as it is it’s perfect”. Some people came up and mentioned like “hey what are they?”. And a couple people said “oh I thought they might have been like earbuds of some sort”. One person or another said that they might be hearing aids. But everyone said “oh they’re kind of unique I didn’t really know what they were”. And I think this is a really important thing to touch on because, if people thought that they were earbuds, then the instant thought is that I’m listening to music and I’m not listening to them. This is like the challenge that we have when you’re wearing Earpods and talking to people you’re perceived as rude. And I found this out by doing another bit of user testing with a slightly different design where everyone thought I was listening to music. That didn’t really work out. And we kind of realized that by changing the color of the plastic, by changing the form factor slightly, we were able to get people’s reaction into that space of “I’m not entirely sure what this is”. Which gives us the opportunity to help them define it as something completely new. Some people didn’t think that they were earbuds and some people didn’t think that they were hearing aids. And this allowed us to create a new product category to define there’s somewhere in between.
We’re still relatively close to the beginning of this journey. I think that’s important to state. We’ve kind of validated a lot of our early ideas that we had. Is this actually possible? Does it actually fit? And we’ve got some really nice checkmarks next to those things. But going forward we’ve got to now turn this into a real product. That’s no small task, but it’s definitely not impossible either.
We’re currently in discussions with a few different manufacturing partners to get the technology that we need inside these to get them to market as soon as possible. So, I can't tell you exactly what’s going to happen when. But that’s all part of the excitement. But we’re on track to bring something out.
Steve Taddei: While Nick and his team are still developing Decibels, you can join the waitlist to be one of the first people to hear them when they’re ready.
When we come back from the break, we’ll hear about another innovative product that’s re-envisioned conventional headphones.
You are listening to the Hearing Tracker Podcast. Thank you for listening and welcome back to the first episode of our 2022 season. If you’re enjoying this episode, please consider leaving us a review. You can also dive deeper and find other content, such as the full unedited interview with Nick, at patreon.com/hearingtrackerpodcast
Pedro Costa: [Auricle Promotional Video] We were wondering, why is it that all high quality headphones always have to block our ears? I’m Pedro, the founder of Auricle.
Steve Taddei: If you recall, today’s episode is all about form factors that challenge conventional devices. Well the Auricle, which was just mentioned in that promo clip, are high quality headphones that aim to leave your ear canals unobstructed. That way, you can enjoy audio without being closed off from the world. Pedro Costa, Auricle’s CEO, shared his vision with me and where this idea came from
Pedro Costa: The premise is that most of the designs you have today, they close you. Even if you think about technology in general like the phone, it's on your face you don’t see anything and headphones are closing your ears. It’s like all the technological advancements are actually taking all your senses but I’ve always been thinking is that what it’s for? Shouldn’t we rather integrate technology with our daily lives and activities?
So I worked with actually bone anchored hearing aids before and I saw the potential of this technology to be not just hearing aids or not just military equipment, but something for everyone.
Steve Taddei: In case you’re not familiar with bone conduction or this type of skin sensation, put your phone on vibrate and have someone call you. Once you hear the incoming call press the phone against your forehead. You should notice the vibration go from quiet to loud as soon as it comes in contact with you. [Bone conduction vibration sound effect] This is because the mechanical vibrations from the transducer are being transmitted directly through your body to the cells in your inner ear, as opposed to through pressure variations in air.
Pedro Costa: You know having your ear open while using headphones, it’s a whole different experience. And once you acknowledge that, once you try it out, you get it. But until that point, you’re like “Why would I do that? I’m perfectly fine with my amazing noise canceling headphones.” And that’s fine but that’s only for some situations and there’s different headphones for different situations right. There’s several use cases that you can have something like that that is beneficial.
Steve Taddei: So I think we're all familiar with noise reduction and how it can help tune out unwanted noise. For example, let’s imagine we’re on a noisy airplane and their just happens to be a crying baby a few rows up.[Airplane humming with chatter and baby crying]. But as Pedro just acknowledged, we may not always want this. One reason for this is due to something called the occlusion effect.
Pedro Costa: Occlusion is a concept that people understand but they feel it but they don’t really know how to translate it into logic. When you talk about occlusion they go “What is that?”. And you know that feeling when you have your ears closed and you eat a cracker or whatever. And then you hear your voice and your chewing. [Chip crunching] But it’s not something that people really think about but they know that they hate it but they just don’t think about it. But when you have an open ear, there’s no occlusion anymore. So that is also pretty powerful.
Steve Taddei: Many of the newer devices try to compensate for occlusion by offering a "transparency mode". Meaning, they have external microphones that pick-up acoustics from the surrounding environment and still transmit it into your ear canal. While this may seem like the best of both worlds, it still has one major drawback.
Pedro Costa: Like for example if you go on your bike [Bike and wind noises] and you use transparency mode, you know the wind noise is still… I mean microphones love wind right. It’s kind of like audio but even more aggressive. So, when you have your ear open, that’s one thing is that it’s as if you have nothing. So, some people even say things like “I even forget I’m wearing them.” It’s not a series system where you have a microphone and an object and a speaker and your ear. It kinda just goes directly, it’s a balance of the two instead.
Steve Taddei: So open-ear headphones can help reduce annoying occlusion. There are also significant safety benefits if you’re someone who likes to wear them outside where there are other people and vehicles. Pedro also described one other benefit unique to bone-conduction technology like the Auricle
Pedro Costa: You can also add the haptic feeling to that which is bone conduction is directly on your skin and it’s vibrating on your skin. So you actually feel the beat literally. And you feel physically which adds another layer to music which is also quite interesting. You can also control the outputs so that you have more or less of that. Some people even perceive it like in my body. Like you’re immersed. And that’s one of the good things about a concert right, when you feel the music and you let go. That’s what it’s for.
Steve Taddei: Auricle headphones consist of two earpieces connected by a wire. So while they’re not cabless, they’re still wireless using Bluetooth 5.0 and low-latency codices like AptX. Since the Auricle devices don’t sit over your head like traditional headphones, they have a pretty unique way of coupling to your ears.
Pedro Costa: Essentially you have this part of your ear called the tragus which is located in the entrance of the ear canal.
Steve Taddei: In case you’re not a wiz on pinna anatomy, feel for the protruding bit of cartilage right in front of the opening of your ear. You likely push on this area when there’s a loud sound and you’re trying to plug your ears.
Pedro Costa: And you basically clip the device to that piece of skin. So much like regular headphones where you have different tips with different sizes. Here you also have a different tip for the clamp system. So yea, you just clip it in and you’re good to go.
Steve Taddei: Pedro went on describing the benefits of the auricle being uniquely located closer to the cheek bone
Pedro Costa: I mean I wear glasses myself and I also wear caps all the time. I’m thinking, there’s so many form factors that interfere with stuff and just objects on objects. It’s just so clunky and no one wants to wear three objects lying on each other. So it doesn’t interfere with glasses. It doesn’t interfere with hats. It doesn’t interfere with anything. Hearing aids as well, but hearing aids depend because if you have a mold then nevermind. Because, they’ll compete in space. But if you have a dome for example, like a dome is pretty flexible and small and flexible, it could coexist.
We have this technology and it enables people to have a normal life. But there's just so many ways we still have to improve it. I think we’re in the right direction, especially in the last few years. I think it’s just a matter of being bold enough. Now more than ever, you have access to all this technology. Things are becoming so commoditized. The world is there today where you can do a lot of things
Steve Taddei: Both these devices, Decibels and Auricle, are really unique and I personally can’t wait to see what happens next. Unapologetically visible hearing enhancement. The option to really feel and consume audio without hindering the natural hearing pathway. This episode has reassured me that there’s a growing landscape of devices across all hearing tech. And this ultimately translates to a better consumer experience where we get to choose which device best suits our lifestyles and personal preferences.
I’d like to thank Nick Morgan-Jones of Decibels. If you’d like to join the waitlist and follow updates head to Decibels.so. Also, much thanks to Pedro Costa of Auricle. To learn more you can visit Auricle.io
This episode was written, produced and sound designed by me with help from Dr. Abram Bailey. If you liked today’s episode, don’t forget to subscribe and leave us a review. As always, thank you for listening.
On the subject of stigma, I don’t think the industry has self stigmatized hearing devices. Society from the 1940s up until only recently has generally stigmatized any condition that we now recognize as “differently abled”. Hearing difficulties have far too long been viewed as a sign of old age and senility, People want to avoid that stigma so they want hidden hearing solutions. The hearing aid 🦻 industry has responded to that consumer demand by creating options that are effective in meeting the hearing challenge but still discreet to be an acceptable addition to someone’s routine. I applaud these gentleman for bringing fresh ideas to the table and I hope society is ready to embrace hearing enhancement technology like it does eyewear. I fear, though, that they will soon learn the average hearing challenged 68 year old wants to hide that deficit as strenuously as they want to hide hair loss and wrinkles.