The Hearing Disruptions series seeks to cover the rapid changes taking place in hearing healthcare. Today’s post is culled from recent topics presented to the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults.
Richard Einhorn. Based upon an address presented June 30, 2015 at the Committee on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care at the Institute of Medicine, Washington, DC.
About half – and for many of us, far greater than half – of nearly all human communications in the developed world today take place via electronic devices, especially audio and mobile devices. We constantly speak to each other on phones, on smartphones, over PA systems, and via conference systems. The sound of our entertainment, from radio and TV to films and discos, is heard, with very few exceptions, over loudspeakers or earphones.
Of course, we also talk face to face without amplification, but when we do so, it’s often in crowded restaurants or at large gatherings where everyone, but especially people with hearing loss, have difficulty hearing each other. Regardless of whether we like or dislike the use of sound amplification and long-distance personal interaction, ubiquitous amplified sound is simply a fact of life today.
Incredibly, in 2015, there is no single wireless connectivity protocol available that reliably connects hearing aids (and related devices) to the full spectrum of audio technologies required to be a functioning citizen in the 21st century. To be sure, manufacturers have their own proprietary solutions, but each one is incompatible – or at best, awkwardly and unreliably compatible – with other manufacturers’ devices. Neckloops cannot begin to reproduce the high quality audio modern audio technology is capable of. Bluetooth is neither fast enough nor flexible enough.
As I see it, if we really want more people to use hearing tech, we simply must make it as easy as possible for them to connect their hearing devices to all other audio technologies they use. To do so, we must encourage the development of an extremely fast and very flexible modern universal protocol for audio connectivity. Any manufacturer’s equipment should connect easily with any other manufacturer’s. Proprietary schemes can only lead to confusion, and confusion will discourage use.
Not only is it essential for people with hearing loss to have a universal connectivity standard, it makes good business sense. For example, imagine if Google, Apple, and Microsoft allowed you to connect online only to their own customers and made it impossible to connect to anyone using a competitor’s device. We’d have three incompatible Internets! It would be impossible to imagine the explosion of e-commerce we see today and the innovations the Net has spawned.
That kind of fundamental and economically self-defeating business environment is precisely the situation created by proprietary wireless audio protocols in hearing loss. An inability to easily connect devices together leads to significant complications and unreliability that surely are among the most important reasons – along with cost – as to why assistive listening accessories are underused.
An open wireless protocol is especially crucial for people with advanced hearing loss who desperately need help in situations where hearing aids simply can’t deliver a high enough signal to noise ratio. Among other use cases, it would enable simple-to-use remote miking, including sophisticated multi-miking, at an affordable cost.
Wireless connectivity must not only be extremely fast, multi-directional, and multi-channel. It also must be extremely simple to use: If we want people to stay connected to the world, then we need to eliminate as much confusion as possible. People should be able to buy any brand of smartphone, for example, and directly connect it to whatever hearing instruments they happen to be wearing. That’s for starters. There’s much more to connect than merely a smartphone: public assistive listening systems in theaters, televisions, remote microphones, and computers immediately come to mind.
Such a universal protocol does not exist at present. While waiting for its development – whether from the announced Ehima/Bluetooth collaboration, the professional/consumer audio industries, or elsewhere – we should encourage the wider use of induction loop technology wherever possible. At present, loop systems come closest to providing a practical universal audio connectivity; the simplicity of use (you just flip a switch on your aid) should serve as a baseline for the design of future wireless connectivity schemes. As is obvious, for example, at every annual meeting of the Hearing Loss Association of America, where loops are used for all public speeches and workshops, people with hearing loss love using loops.
All of us who care about helping people with hearing loss should urge the development of a non-proprietary audio connectivity protocol that is open to all companies, extremely fast, and flexible enough to spur innovative hearing assistance solutions that are more effective than even the most advanced hearing technology available today.
feature image courtesy of eugenio pirri