NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 23rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: hearing technology.
Maybe you’re listening to us today on wireless earbuds.
Maybe you asked voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri to serve up today’s program.
This has the major tech companies thinking hard about making earpieces the main way you engage your smartphone.
EICHER: Congress recently approved a bill that will allow companies to sell hearing aids over the counter.
That means an emerging new market for smartphone-powered earpieces that’ll improve hearing at a fraction of the price of current hearing aids.
REICHARD: WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to talk to us about these devices called “hearables,” and why they could be technology’s next big thing.
First of all, Michael, what exactly is a “hearable” and why are tech companies suddenly so interested in them?
MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Over the past several years, smartphone makers have been trying to get rid of that clunky cord connecting your earbuds and your phone. Apple’s Airpods are currently the most popular. But other, independent companies were already busy creating wireless earbuds that could do so much more than just let you hear your playlist. They could cancel out unwanted background noise, amplify specific voices in a noisy room for better conversation—and even provide near-instantaneous language translation.
REICHARD: Well that’s impressive!
COCHRANE: Yeah, the major tech companies all realized where this could go, and so they quickly began hiring top engineering talent away from these smaller firms. Most of the big tech firms now have high-priority efforts underway. They want to combine the features of a hearing aid with the sound quality of high-end headphones as well as a seamless voice interface so you never have to look at your phone.
REICHARD: OK, a moment ago Nick mentioned that recent change in the law to now permit over-the-counter purchases of hearing aids. How did that affect the ongoing development efforts?
COCHRANE: A lot. Congress passed the “OTC Hearing Aid Law” about a year ago and it goes into full effect in August of 20-20. That gap gives the FDA time to draw up regulations to create a class of over-the-counter hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. What that will mean is that you could go to a drugstore or a big box store and buy a “hearable” for a few hundred dollars as opposed to paying thousands for a custom-fitted hearing aid.
REICHARD: Now that’s going to open up a potentially huge market.
COCHRANE: It will. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association says that by 20-20, 45 million people in the U-S will suffer from mild to moderate hearing loss. Yet, because of the expense, traditional hearing aids have a low adoption rate—only about 14 percent of folks who could benefit from them actually buy them.
REICHARD: And although they’re classified as medical devices, traditional hearing aids aren’t typically covered by insurance, right?
COCHRANE: That’s right. There are only about five or six companies dominating the $6 billion-a-year hearing aid industry. These days the average price is about $2,700, according to Consumer Reports.
REICHARD: Are they really worth that much money?
COCHRANE: Well, traditional hearing aids do have some advantages over the current crop of hearables: They’re smaller, lighter and less visible. And they can run up to 18 hours a day for an entire week on a set of batteries. Even the best-performing hearables have just a few hours of battery life.
REICHARD: But even if the new hearables are a lot cheaper, will people really go all day with a device sticking out of their ear?
COCHRANE: Oh, there are lots of challenges with designing hearables that are small, light and fit perfectly in your ear canal while being comfortable for long periods of time. More importantly might be the social stigma. Right now, if you see someone with earbuds you know they’re not available for conversation. That’s going to be the paradigm shift: wearing a product like this and still sending the message that you’re listening and available.
REICHARD: Well, perhaps that stigma will go by the wayside eventually, given what you’ve said about the potential of these devices and the attractive prices.
COCHRANE: I think so. Industry watchers seem to agree that this collision of consumer listening devices and traditional hearing aid technology will generally improve consumers’ hearing experiences. You get tailored sound amplification, noise reduction, phone calls and music listening all in one device. And it’s all customizable with a smartphone app.
REICHARD: One last question, Michael: Do these tech companies have a longer-term vision for these in-ear devices?
COCHRANE: The tech companies want to leverage the popularity of the new voice assistants such as Alexa into hearables so they do much more than simply amplify sounds and make phone calls. With your ears just inches from your mouth, a hearable is in a perfect position to receive voice commands. Hearables could be the primary way you interact with your virtual assistant. Ultimately, with the right sensors and processors, these earpieces could function as health monitors, tracking heart rate, stress, even brain activity.
REICHARD: So, basically, they’re trying to shrink a computer and put it in your head!
COCHRANE: I think you nailed it, Mary!
REICHARD: Michael Cochrane is WORLD’S Science and Technology reporter. Good to hear from ya!
COCHRANE: My pleasure, Mary.