Hearables: Boomers' Answer to the Hearing Aid

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Person holding a ReSound hearing device
The ReSound LiNIX, despite its size, can provide GPS guidance and block ambient noises.


Forget wearables; let's talk hearables, the devices formerly known as hearing aids. The hearing aid/hearables market is $5.4 billion worldwide, compared to the $2 billion headphone market. Apple buying Beats may have made headlines, but Apple building Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and an accessibility app into the iPhone 5 and 6 are much more newsworthy. Why? Because this opens up the hearables market so wide that the $3 billion Beats purchase will look like small change — and make Google Glass look like a toy.

It's estimated that half of the baby boomers have some degree of hearing loss, caused by everything from rock music to lawn mowers or just aging. (It happens.) Yet only a quarter of those who need hearing aids actually gets them. As one study notes, "For many people, a hearing aid is an unwelcome reminder of the aging process, one that they simply cannot accept."

Screw that. When I explain what my hearables can do, the kids are envious.

Setting a New Bar For the Tech World

The tech world is abuzz about wearable tech these days. When I was at the international Consumer Electronics Show (CES), there was a whole section devoted to wearables — dozens of competing watches and wristbands, all telling you how fast your heart was beating.

There was only one company showing wearables that you stick in your ear, and that was ReSound, launching its iPhone-connected LiNX. Seriously, there are 38 million candidates for hearing aids, and all the startups are peddling FitBits. At the time I was wearing a more primitive design of connected hearing aids that required an annoying streamer box around my neck. I was excited by the LiNX, but they were not yet on the market and needed at least an iPhone 5. (I wrote about this in TreeHugger at the time.)

They weren't called hearables, either; the term hearables was apparently first used in April by analyst Nick Hunn, who says "Forget wristbands – The ear is the new wrist."

"The challenge that any wrist-worn device has is to provide the user with a stream of new and interesting information. If we turn our attention to the ear, that limitation disappears," Hunn writes.

iPhone and Resound LiNX hearing aids
The ReSound LiNX hearables sit next to iPhones show their devices control interfaces. ReSound 

I have been swimming in that stream in the hearables world for the last month, since I got my new iPhone 6 and hooked it up to a pair of ReSound LiNX, lent to me for review purposes. Most reviewers who don't wear hearing aids look at them and at the app, and write about how "now old people with clumsy fingers can adjust the volume using their phone."

Jerks. I'm not that old, and I don't need a big expensive knob. Besides, the knobs do a whole lot more than that. In Wired, Stephen Brown writes about hearing aids as hearables: "The secret to making hearing aids more appealing and the cost more palatable is improving the value of the device." Indeed. But then he goes south and writes about elderly boomers who are isolated or arthritic or can't control a mouse anymore.

I wonder what he says about people who wear glasses? Hello, Stephen, that's no added value for a 60-year-old, and that's not the market that has 78 million members and tops out at 68 right now. I'll show you added value — here's what I can do that you can't.

Doing More Than the Average Hearing Aid

At the simplest level, I have a volume control for my ears and you don't. You have no idea how nice that is to have in a room full of annoying people, on an airplane, or when I want to concentrate. I also have a great set of wireless headphones that feed music and podcasts into my head, along with my RunKeeper reports of mileage and pace when I am on the road. I have a fitness app in my head. I have Google maps in my head.

And then there is the killer app: GPS integration. I can preset the volume and tone controls for different locations. When I bike down to visit my mom in the hospital, it clicks over to the setting I made that drops the treble, to cut out all the beeping machinery. When I return, there is the reassuring beep at the bottom of the street that tells me I'm home, then it cranks up the treble and the sensitivity so I can understand my mumbling daughter. Hey, I don't just have a volume control, I have an equalizer for my ears. I can do presets for all the places that I hang out in. In short, I can map how I want the city to sound.

ReSound User Interface
ReSound's LiNX phone interface, including the customization of noise based on location. ReSound

If I'm talking to someone in a noisy place, I can go into restaurant mode and turn off all the microphones that don't point straight ahead. If I'm in a really loud restaurant, I can discreetly place my iPhone on the table (who doesn't do that?) and turn it into a remote microphone.

Oh, and did I mention that it's a terrific hands-free phone for the car or the bike or for when I am doing interviews? It's not a matter of picking up the phone to hear or putting on headphones. I am always connected, always wired in. I talk to Siri a lot; she's not quite Scarlett Johansson in "Her," but I’m becoming fond of her nonetheless.

She is in my head, answering my questions, and calling my mom. It's really not that far from a description of the hearables in the movie from Stephen Brown's article in Wired: "Viewers got a peek at a barely-there, cordless earbud that characters easily popped into their ear at the start of their day and popped out again at the end, providing a seamless experience between what's going on in reality and what’s happening digitally, online or in one's body."

No wonder the kids are envious; I'm pretty much already there.