Hearing Healthcare 2020 is a column where we explore the forces behind the changing landscape and disruptions impacting the hearing healthcare industry.
This week, HHTM President and CEO, Kevin Liebe, connected with Thomas Lang, PhD, the Vice President of Marketing for Phonak and Unitron US, to discuss the motivation behind the recently launched Virto Black hearing aid — a device that was intentionally designed to blur the line between popular ‘hearable’ devices and traditional hearing aids.
KL: For those who haven’t been following the recent press coverage behind the launch of the Virto Black, what was the motivation behind it and why did Phonak feel that now was the best time to launch a product like this?
TL: Great question, Kevin. If we take a step back and look at the last several decades of this industry, one of the trends that has remained constant has been miniaturization. Products have increasingly become smaller to the point where they can be invisible when worn. This trend has in many ways been driven by consumers’ desire for inconspicuous products. You’ll likely recall MarkeTrak reports of the past where a consumer’s top influencing factor for purchase was whether the hearing aid was ‘invisible or nearly invisible.’
Like other hearing aid brands, Phonak has delivered on this front with invisible-in-the-canal solutions like Lyric or the new Virto M Titanium. We will continue to deliver and improve on these products because most wearers still prefer not to advertise their hearing aids. And that’s perfectly OK because everyone is different. This development had an interesting consequence, though: the general public today is not aware of how small state-of-the-art hearing aids are, as they have become mainly invisible when worn.
As for timing, we felt now was the right time to launch a product like Virto Black that’s meant to be seen because of an obvious shift in consumer behavior. If you really think about it, this shift started taking place nearly 20 years ago with the first monaural Bluetooth headsets (which were more like over-the-ear earpieces). Of course, that behavioral shift I’m referring to is a consumer’s willingness to wear ear-level devices in public, which has only increased over time.
KL: Ever since the early discussions of ‘hearables’, there has been a lot of talk about how they may have the power to reduce stigma of wearing hearing devices among the general population. This was specifically mentioned in the press release as a motivation in launching the Virto Black. How do you see these types of ‘cross-over’ products helping achieve that goal and what sort of evidence have you seen to support that?
TL: There’s no doubt that the growing popularity of hearables in the consumer electronic industry is helping to reduce the stigma of hearing devices to a certain extent. To use the previous example, we all remember the early days of Bluetooth phone headsets, particularly some of our initial reactions toward people who took phone calls in public and appeared to be talking to themselves. Nowadays, this is considered perfectly normal. Or just walk around any major city—everyone seems like they have something in their ears.
Virto Black is indeed a ‘cross-over’ of sort and was designed to blur the lines between a hearing aid and a hearable—but in style only. This is a very important distinction. While the product may look like an earbud or hearable, it packs the same connectivity and hearing performance of any other Phonak Marvel hearing aid.
In this context, looks can be deceiving—or intriguing. In 2018, our market research team conducted a worldwide survey of more than 600 people with self-identified hearing loss who currently were not wearing any hearing aids. We presented them with both traditional in-the-ear hearing aids and Virto Black and asked which one they would prefer to wear. The majority chose Virto Black, and this choice was most prominent in the 18-56 age range, suggesting younger wearers may be more comfortable wearing a bold, stylish product in their ears.
How do you think the hearing industry should be leveraging the increased popularity of hearable and assistive devices to grow awareness of the importance of hearing healthcare? How might hearing professionals leverage this to grow their practices?
TL: I can’t speak for everyone in the industry but I personally think a lot of this depends on your attitude toward these products and specifically whether you view them as a threat, an opportunity or perhaps a little of both. Let’s face it – hearables are not going away any time soon, and with more PSAPs and eventually OTC products entering the U.S. market, the competition for people’s ears will be tougher and more crowded than ever.
Hearing Care Professionals who view this as an opportunity to increase patient access to hearing care and grow their business through new avenues of lead generation will be in a much better position to leverage the popularity of these devices and build customers for life.
While there is no substitution for advanced hearing instrument technology, as mentioned earlier, we cannot deny the role hearables are playing in helping to destigmatize hearing aids. Put simply, the growing popularity of these devices has made it socially acceptable to wear something in your ears—even while you are socializing with friends. This leads right back into why we unveiled Virto M Black at CES this year. I doubt the market was ready for a product like this a decade ago.
KL: We’ve been seeing an increased presence by major hearing aid manufacturers over the past few years, like Phonak for example, at events like CES. Do you expect this trend to continue and accelerate with the increased popularity of hearables and similar cross-over technologies? Why or why not?
TL: I do expect this trend to continue. When you look at some of the biggest tech trends from CES, it’s clear that hearing aid manufacturers have already taken an active part in many of them, including AI, Digital Health and Accessibility. So, it’s only natural for hearing aid manufacturers to have a seat at the table. It’s also an interesting opportunity to reach an audience that may not necessarily look for information about hearing aids.
In addition, we’ve only just scratched the surface as to what information we can obtain from the human ear, and more importantly how we can utilize that information in ways we never thought possible. Add to that the growing field of Voice technology and its potential to better integrate into our modern lives and the opportunities for ear-level devices seem almost endless.
This is all very exciting stuff, but it’s important we never lose sight of our core mission to help people hear and understand better. At Phonak, we continuously challenge the limits of technology to help overcome even the most difficult hearing situations. Digital signal processing has come a long way, but there’s always room for improvement.
KL: Does Phonak or any other Sonova brand have plans to launch a non-custom version of Virto Black or any other type of hearable for the mass market?
TL: I can’t speculate on what the future may hold, but I can tell you this: the way Virto M Black was received by media, hearing care professionals and even consumers has been truly inspiring to watch.
As an industry, we’re well aware that the hearing aid stigma remains a powerful obstacle to hearing aid adoption, especially in the mild-to-moderate category. As more visible styles and form factors like Virto Black continue to emerge, this can only further help normalize the sight of ear-level devices, whether premium hearing instruments or otherwise.
KL: Tom, thanks for taking the time to share your views with us today.
TL: It’s my pleasure, Kevin, and thank you for this opportunity and for your interest in Virto M. Black. We’ll be sure to keep you and your readers updated as future product news develops.
Thomas Lang, PhD, is the Vice President of Marketing for Phonak & Unitron US. Dr. Lang joined Sonova in 2001 as project leader in Research and Development for Phonak and moved quickly to product management in Marketing. Thomas holds a PhD in Technical Sciences from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich.
Kevin Liebe, AuD, is President and CEO of the HHTM Group, which publishes Hearing Health & Technology Matters and FindHearing.com. He is also the co-founder of Audiology Exclusive, which helps audiology, ENT and hearing aid practices obtain special savings on clinical products and services. As an audiologist, Kevin has experience in variety of settings, including private practice, ENT, and industry. He is a past president and board member of the Washington State Academy of Audiology.