Trick question. Bluetooth or T-coil: Which is more important to include in hearing aids? The answer, for now is both. Because they do different things.
We use Bluetooth to stream via personal devices like laptops, smartphones and TV sets while T-coils let us tap into hearing loop systems in public spaces like theaters, conference and lecture halls, and even pharmacy check-out counters. (Learn more about locating venues with hearing loops at this link. Many are now listed on Google Maps!)
Over time, as Bluetooth shifts to its new Auracast version, we may no longer need both Bluetooth and T-coil. Progress like this is wonderful—the more hearing technology goes mainstream, the better it will be for people with hearing loss—but in the eagerness to move forward, let’s make sure nobody is left behind. The industry must continue to support both technologies during the transition period—which may last 5 to 10 years
Exciting New Bluetooth Technology on the Horizon: Auracast
We all dream of the day when we can walk into any venue, public space, or theater and connect our hearing devices seamlessly to the sound system. No need to pick up listening devices with neckloops, extra streamers or delayed audio. No hassle. Only clear sound transmitted directly to our existing technology. Auracast means this day is coming—not just for people with hearing devices—but for the mainstream.
This is exciting because when better hearing access is available for all, we, the people with hearing loss will benefit the most, because we need hearing access the most. And because the technology will be the same for wireless consumer earbuds as well as hearing devices for people with hearing loss, there is the potential to lower stigma.
When finally demanded by all, accessibility will be built into the mainstream plan. I can’t wait!
What is Auracast?
Auracast is a new Bluetooth technology that allows users to tap into any Auracast-equipped sound system for better hearing. The receiving device does not matter. It will work with Auracast-equipped hearing aids, cochlear implants, and everyday wireless headphones.
When fully rolled out, it could be used for customized sound at a movie theater, a lecture hall or even to share the song you are enjoying with a friend.
I had a chance to try it out at the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People (IFHOH) 2022 World Congress, and it was encouraging. The latency (the delay between when the sound is picked up by the microphone and the processed signal is played back) is far superior to standard Bluetooth. This increased speed could help turn many everyday listening devices (including our smartphones) into hearing enhancers.
How Does Auracast Work?
Auracast is a new way to engage with others and public sound systems. It can be used three ways.
1. Share your audio
With Auracast, you can use your device to share audio with other people around you through a smartphone. This will be incredibly useful in meetings or other gatherings in noisy spaces. New microphone technology will also need to be developed for this to be most useful in loud places.
2. Hear your best in public spaces
Auracast will work like a hearing loop, letting you tap into a venue’s sound system directly with your listening device. No smartphone is needed unless you must choose from among multiple sound streams like in a multiplex cinema. Even better, Auracast will be included in all hearing devices so we will no longer need to replace our streamers and other add-ons if we change hearing aid brands. When fully realized, Auracast would work seamlessly everywhere.
3. Unmute your world
Auracast could be used to listen to muted TVs in bars and waiting rooms or to receive real-time announcements at airports and other public places. It could also be used for future immersive digital signage.
But, For Now, T-Coils Remain a Required Feature
Auracast is exciting and provides many potential benefits for people with hearing loss.
- One technology would work everywhere and with all brands of hearing devices
- It would eliminate the hassle of picking up listening devices at venues
- Because Auracast would work for all consumer devices, more venues would be incentivized to have it and to keep it working reliably and well
- More widespread use of hearing devices of all sorts would help lower stigma
- And there would be lower latency (sound delay) in streaming and other Bluetooth functions.
But many of these benefits are likely years away as the technology is fine-tuned, and the full range of Bluetooth devices and public venues transition to this new model. For now, T-coils remain a critical accessibility tool for people with hearing loss.
Let’s hope the industry is taking note.
Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.