By David H. Kirkwood
BLACKSBURG, VA—The answer to that question is decidedly yes, very far behind. To be sure, behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids, which were the dominant style in the U.S. in the 1960s and then dwindled to less than 20% of the market in the early 1990s, did launch a dramatic comeback over the past decade and now account for some 70% of all hearing aid sold here.
However, none of the reasons for the return of the BTE (most of them related to the introduction of digital signal processing in hearing aids) pertain to hearing aids masquerading as eyeglasses. These products reached a peak market share of 50% during the 1950s, but were driven into extinction long ago, first by BTEs and later by various styles of of in-the-ear devices.
This unpromising history didn’t stop a foursome of future engineers at Virginia Tech University from conceptualizing NuWave, which combines bone-conduction technology with eyeglasses to help people with hearing loss. The inventors–Chelsey Pon, Lane Stith, Nellie Talbot, and Peter Yoo—initially created the NuWave concept for this year’s “Getting Wireless” Student Design Challenge. This program is sponsored by Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, which is dedicated to developing wireless technologies that meet the needs and improve the quality of life of individuals with disabilities.
The Virginia Tech undergraduates were challenged to come up with a solution for Michael, a fictitious 16-year-old high school student who suffered hearing loss and brain damage in a car accident. He doesn’t like to use his mobile phone because he frequently misses calls and has trouble hearing the conversation. And, he says, he wants to feel normal.
The team hit upon the idea of using bone conduction in an assistive hearing device that met Michael’s needs without being too conspicuous. Though the NuWave has not yet been built, the concept is that bone-conduction transducers mounted on either prescription or non-prescription glasses would convert sound waves into vibrations that would be carried through the temporal bone to the inner ear.
Among the advantages of this approach, the young inventors said, were:
(1) Discretion: “Glasses can be worn anywhere at any time without drawing attention.”
(2) Practicality: “The eyeglass temples come into direct contact with the temporal bone, which is the ideal location for sound vibration.”
(3) Cosmetics: “Glasses are a fashion trend rather than just a necessity. They keep Michael looking as normal as possible.”
In addition, the NuWave device would be connected to Michael’s phone via Bluetooth technology.
Having conceived of NuWave for the “Getting Wireless” Student Design Challenge, the Virginia Tech group then entered it in the James Dyson Awards competition. Founded by James Dyson, a British inventor and billionaire, this international design award “celebrates, encourages, and inspires the next generation of design engineers.” This year’s winners will be announced next month.