Since this post was originally published on April 30, it has drawn a number of thoughtful and provocative comments, which follow the main text. This revised post also contains a response from Jan Topholm, a prominent EHIMA member, to a query that I sent him in writing the original post.
By David H. Kirkwood
BRUSSELS/KIRKLAND, WA–The European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) have announced a partnership to develop a new wireless standard for hearing devices. By teaming up, EHIMA, which represents the six major hearing aid manufacturers, and the Seattle area-based Bluetooth SIG, which authorizes manufacturers to use Bluetooth® wireless technology, hope to develop a standard for new hearing aids that will improve existing wireless functionalities and create new ones, such as stereo audio streaming from mobile devices.
However, last month’s announcement has raised concerns among some advocates for people with hearing loss. They worry that an industry commitment to a new wireless standard that won’t be available for years may lead to neglect of telecoils and looping systems, which benefit hearing aid wearers now.
MANY BENEFITS SEEN FROM BLUETOOTH STANDARD
In their announcement, EHIMA and the Bluetooth SIG said that tens of millions of people with hearing loss have been largely left out ofthe recent revolution in smartphones, personal music players, TVs, and tablets, because few hearing aids offer direct connectivity to these devices. The organizations added that while the low-power, intelligent connectivity provided by Bluetooth Smart offers great potential to hearing aid users, that potential is largely untapped because there is no wireless standard for hearing aids.
Soren Hougaard, secretary general of EHIMA, said, “It is important that we connect to and serve all kinds of smartphones and multimedia sound signals. To achieve that, we must define a standard everyone can implement. We want to avoid the situation that occurred in the market for videotapes in the 1980s where customers had to choose among three to five tape formats and corresponding VCRs.”
Hougaard anticipates that a new Bluetooth standard will be finalized within two years, at which time it could be rapidly adopted by consumer electronics manufacturers.
EHIMA LEADER SEES A SLOW PROCESS
In preparing this post, I sent a letter to Jan Topholm, who was listed in EHIMA’s announcement as the press contact. Topholm, who is CEO and president of Widex AS, sent a reply on May 20. In it, he said:
“The industry is seeking a common solution in order for all manufacturers to be compatible with one system for communication between hearing instruments and surroundings. Bluetooth Low Energy was chosen because it is in widespread use already and thus the equipment for communicating with telephones, TV-sets and broadcasting is already developed and in mass production and thus relatively cheap.
“We need to develop a special protocol for hearing instruments and to integrate low energy bluetooth transmitters/receivers adapted for this purpose. This is already being done.
“I expect a slow transition from telecoils to BT transmitters over the next many years. BT hearing instruments will come in some models at first, but not in all, as battery requirements are higher for this type of transmission. Installation of BT transmission in homes and public rooms is much simpler and cheaper than installing telecoil systems, and this will drive the transition.
“A guess (mine) could be that in 10 years 75% of the transition to BT transmission will have taken place. For the hearing instruments the driver will be connectivity to all sound-generating devices.
“This is as I see the situation, but the future is always difficult to predict.”
REPLACING THE TELECOIL
The joint EHIMA-Bluetooth SIG statement said, “Currently, the only standard for wireless reception of audio signals in hearing aids is the telecoil, which dates back to the 1950s. This technology is difficult to incorporate into smartphones. Furthermore, the number of installed loop systems that can transmit audio signals to hearing aids with telecoils varies greatly from country to country. As a result, hearing aid users have limited access to high-quality audio signals from external sources.”
The statement continued, “Building on the existing Bluetooth standard that is widely supported in today’s smartphones, tablets, and personal computers will give more hearing-impaired users the same choice of products and opportunities as everyone else.”
TELECOILS FAR FROM OBSOLETE, SAY ADVOCATES
David Myers, who has worked with other hearing advocates on a nationwide campaign to have induction loops installed in auditoriums, churches, and theaters to make them accessible to hearing aid and cochlear implant wearers, has long predicted that some improved technology would eventually replace telecoils and hearing loops.
The Hope College social psychology professor (and www.hearingloop.org creator) is no Luddite. He enjoys using Bluetooth connectivity between his iPhone and his new hearing aids. However, said Myers in response to a query from Hearing News Watch, it will be a long time before Bluetooth or any other alternative wireless connectivity can match the virtues of looping, such as:
- ease of use by people of all ages,
- availability in nearly all hearing aids
- affordability (no cost to users beyond the price of the hearing aid)
- energy efficiency (little or no battery drain), and
- universality,with the same signal serving everyone, no matter their location or brand of hearing aid.
How long will it be before some better alternative renders looping obsolete? Per Kokholm Sørensen, director of R & D Electronics for Widex, addressed that question in his presentation at the 2013 International Hearing Loop Conference.
Sørensen, a member of EHIMA’s Technical Committee, said, “Loop systems as we know them today will stay around for many years to come.”
Conny Andersson, owner and technical director of the Swedish company Univox, which makes audio induction loop systems, shares Sørensen’s view. Andersson, who was a member of the Bluetooth Interest Group when Bluetooth was first developed, said, “The question of incorporating Bluetooth in hearing aids pops up every now and then.“ But, he said, “No technology in the near future has the same practical possibilities as hearing loop systems, basically for two reasons: power consumption and that there is an international standard [for hearing loops], which is accepted globally.“
Cynthia Compton-Conley, one of America’s leading authorities on assistive hearing technology, expressed doubt that any new technology would soon replace telecoils and loops, largely because the current technology is so inexpensive to use and requires negligible battery power. Compton-Conley, a former professor of audiology at Gallaudet and now an independent consultant, also pointed out “The hearing loop Initiative is making inroads in this country.”
A FINAL THOUGHT
David Myers offered some advice to hearing aid companies from his perspective as a consumer: “The hearing industry would serve its own interests, as well as those of people with hearing loss, if it would not prematurely discourage the spread of hearing loops—and the increased hearing instrument functionality they provide. How much better to celebrate the modern spread of hearing loops in the UK, Scandinavia, and now the USA—with more delighted customers. When the industry can meet the criteria in the bulleted list above with an alternative technology, then do so.“