Disruptive times for In-Ear Devices

We are observing the blurring lines between smart earphones and professional hearing-aids with great interest. From our perspective, both kinds of devices will benefit from the same technological advancements, overcoming shared hurdles.

It’s World Hearing Day today! A day that seems to gain in importance each year. There has never been more focus on the ear. Investors, tech firms, researchers – everyone is speaking about hearing these days. That can be good news for hearing health as well. Sadly, the number of people with hearing loss is proliferating. But new ideas, apps, and technologies are emerging that can help – not only with existing hearing loss but also in preventing damage.

Few sectors have grown as massively in recent years as the market for “hearables” – smart in-ear devices with an increasing array of AI functions. From 2019 to 2020 alone, unit sales have seen a substantial leap of 60 percent [1]. Yet, we are only at the beginning.

Blog: Disruptive Times for In-Ear Devices: Hearing aid on the ear
Futurists suggest we may all soon dump our smartphones for wireless earbuds [2], controlled only by our voice.

Messaging, music, instant translations, mobile payments, health monitoring, navigation, safety – you name it. All in our ear. Today’s earbuds already feature some of these functions. And: they increasingly facilitate a certain level of hearing enhancement.

A smart move, considering that 60% of respondents in a recent survey [1] have named “conversational enhancement” as a key feature they expect from earphones.

That brings us back to World Hearing Day. There have been many discussions, whether the rapid rise of hearables is rather a threat or an opportunity for hearing health and the audiology industry.

As a tech component provider, we can probably only share an impression from the away stand, when it comes to hearing health. But from our seat, and speaking to experts in both teams regularly, we see many chances, arising from disruptive technologies.

A whole generation is considered at risk for hearing loss, not least due to the unsafe and excessive use of earphones. But modern hearables with respective sensors can actually raise their users’ awareness for circumstances that are threatening their hearing abilities. That way, hearables could support hearing care.

Hearing-aids are increasingly taking the shape of “hearables” themselves, offering more and more smart functions – a great development for people with hearing loss. Same as the fact that in-ear devices are becoming fashionable items that everyone wears.

And then, there is the question if hearing-aids are eventually becoming obsolete. Lines between technologies are blurring. However, at least so far, earbuds cannot offer the same level of individual fine tuning that professional hearing aids can. They seem to be an option for mild hearing loss. It remains questionable if standardized products can ever replace health experts in more severe cases.

What is interesting from our perspective is that both types of devices face the same technological challenges:

1) More functions require more computing capacities and that means more space and more battery power. At the same time, devices are supposed to be used constantly and thus batteries need to last for many hours. All components will therefore need to be smaller and more power-efficient than they are today. That is especially true for speakers/drivers – a rather bulky component traditionally.

 2) Today’s hearables tend to focus on optimizing music, while hearing aids put an emphasis on enhancing speech. Current components are not always perfectly suited for both use cases. Speakers/drivers, for instance, should ideally meet the needs for all desired functionalities.

We are sure that the ear will remain in the centre of attention for quite a while. These are disruptive times for in-ear-devices. All are still facing some technological challenges on their path to offering their users the full “hearables” experience. It is exciting to be part of the solution.

Author: Lutz Ehrig

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