HHTM Hearing News Round-up: This Week’s Notable Stories

It’s AAA week in Columbus, Ohio and as audiologists attending the meeting walk the expo floor they will be exposed to an unprecedented number of smartphone apps, voice-activated technology, rechargeable devices, not to mention an assortment of implantable and hybrid products that could help expand the marketplace demand for hearing care professionals.

If you can’t make it to the big meeting on the banks of the Scioto River, this edition of the News Roundup should get you up to speed on a few of the latest technological developments.


Apple Launches New AirPods with Voice-First H1 Chip


Apple’s product launches continued last week with the announcement of the second-generation AirPods, which will include a wireless charging case and a new H1 chip that the company claims offers improved battery life and “Hey, Siri” support to trigger the virtual assistant without pressing a button. The introduction of the H1 chip harkens the further advancement of “voice-first” technology in ear-worn devices.

The new H1 chip is another potential gamebreaker, as Apple says the H1 chip offers a number of benefits over the W1 chip in the last generation. These upgrades include: up to an extra hour of talk time, which Apple says is a 50 percent increase; better mic clarity; connection times are twice as fast when switching between devices; and the aforementioned “Hey, Siri” support — which Apple already offers on newer iPhones, iPads, Macs, and the HomePod — that allows you to ask Siri things hands-free. The new AirPods also includes support for Bluetooth 5.

The H1 chip is the first in a new line of headphone-focused chips that Apple is making, breaking away from the W-series chips that the AirPods had borrowed from the Apple Watch line (which will continue to use W-series processors in the future). Apple will be selling the updated AirPods in two options: with the wireless charging case for $199 or with the standard case for the same $159 price as the previous generation. The company will also sell the wireless charging case separately for existing AirPod owners for $79. That way, users will be able to charge their headphones with a wireless charger without upgrading to the new model.

The AirPods new wireless charging case works with standard Qi charging, thus it should work with nearly every other wireless charger.


Earbuds as Health Monitors


A recent article in IEEE Spectrum, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, provided yet another great example of the convergence of medical devices and consumer electronics. It is well known that the ear is a great place to track steps, heart rate, falls, and even brain waves. And, it is also a good spot to place galvanic skin response sensors that can detect stress.

Now, a growing number of mainstay consumer electronic companies are slated to bring a growing number of ear-worn devices that allow for a myriad of biomonitoring and tracking.

This melding of medical and consumer technology is currently found in a few places. Today, for example, headphone makers are bringing to market designs that include capacitive touch on the side of earbuds, integrated voice recognition (e.g., Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant) and even infrared scanners that can take a snapshot of your ear to optimize the sound. As chip technology becomes more robust and rechargeability evolves, this list of hybrid products is expected to expand.

The IEEE Spectrum article mentions the new H1 chip from Apple. It also quotes Dave Fabry of Starkey. The entire article can be found here.


University of Utah Engineers Receive Grant to Develop Slanted Electrode Array for Hearing Loss


According to a March 19th Phys-Org report, a team of researchers including engineers from the University of Utah recently received a $9.7-million grant to design and develop a new implantable device and surgical procedure for the deaf that intends to cut through the noise and produce much more detailed sound than traditional hearing devices.

This new procedure involves the use of a new version of the Utah Electrode Array architecture, a brain-computer interface originally developed by University of Utah biomedical engineering Professor Emeritus Richard Normann that can send and receive electrical impulses from the brain.

University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor Florian Solzbacher holds a version of the Utah Electrode Array. Image courtesy Dan Hixson, University of Utah

The version used to treat hearing loss is a variant of the Utah Slanted Electrode Array designed for use in peripheral nerves. Versions of the Utah Electrode Array are being further developed to allow amputees to move prosthetic limbs with their mind and, in this case, to hear higher-resolution sounds than with regular cochlear implants.

This new procedure, funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, could help those with severe-profound hearing  loss in which cochlear implants are contraindicated because the Utah Electrode Array assembly is a small (1.2 x 1.8 mm) silicon chip attached to a bundle of wires and connected to a stimulator device, is implanted directly to the patient’s auditory nerve as opposed to the cochlea.

Another benefit of this technology is that the electrode array could be connected to existing hearing aids normally used in regular cochlear implants and does not require specially-designed devices. During the first three years of the grant, the team will develop the technology and surgical procedure and ensure it is safe and effective. The final two years will be devoted to implanting the devices on three patients with hearing loss who are normally not candidates for cochlear implants.

The team will be led by researchers from the University of Minnesota and includes scientists from The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the research branch of Northwell Health, headquartered in Manhasset, New York; Hannover Medical School, a university medical center in Hannover, Germany; International Neuroscience Institute in Hannover, Germany; Hannover Clinical Trial Center in Germany; Salt Lake City-based Blackrock Microsystems LLC, an implantable neurotechnology device company that has been developing the Utah Electrode Array; and MED-EL, an Austrian manufacturer of medical devices for hearing loss.