Tech for Change: Can new gadgets at CES 2021 solve hearing loss?

The surge in popularity of true wireless earbuds, especially those hockey sticks from Apple, has eyes on people’s ears these days. But beyond simply blocking the sound of traffic and letting you listen to the latest Reply All podcast, today’s hearables can do stuff. Some can augment your hearing to help you overcome hearing loss, or simply let you focus in on the person across the table in a noisy restaurant. They’re also vastly cheaper than hearing aids and don’t require Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

At the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, we expect to see a fleet of these devices that aim to help the hard of hearing in ways that were simply unimaginable a decade ago and make the world a better place, a concept we call Tech for Change. Crucial to that are the enormous advances made in recent years in artificial intelligence. Take Oticon for example, a company that’s unveiling what it says is the first new hearing aid to have a deep neural network embedded within the hearing aid chip itself.

The company trained this A.I. on 12 million real-life sounds to give it the information it needs to decipher and process sound. Oticon says this will lead to a more natural sound, with less listening effort, and improved speech understanding. Sounds wonderful, no?

Then there’s Olive Pro from Olive Union, the first FDA-registered smart hearing aids that optimize hearing and deliver high-fidelity sound – all for a few hundred bucks, rather than the thousands conventional hearing aids cost. The Olive Pro aids look and feel like traditional true wireless earbuds, but again, thanks to the power of A.I., they can isolate specific sounds and conversations and home in on them based on the wearer’s specific audio profile. All of those smarts mean they can also play music really, really well.

“When my uncle first needed hearing assistance, everything from design and pricing to technology and maintenance turned him away,” said Owen Song, founder and CEO of Olive Union, in a press release announcing the devices. “Our third-generation Olive Pro was built for him and the 466 million people globally suffering from some level of hearing loss.”

Meanwhile, there’s Nuheara, which makes the new IQbuds2 MAX, which the company calls “the world’s most advanced hearing bud.” Hype aside, the technology going into hearing aids (let’s just call ’em hearables) these days is astounding. Nuheara is powered by a chip from a company called ams. Similar to the hearing aids from Olive Union, the ams chip is claimed to personalize its audio augmentations to enhance the hearing of users with mild hearing challenges. The company really leans into its noise cancellation powers as well.

“Nuheara is blazing a trail for a new type of smart hearing device that enhances the hearing experience of those consumers who up until now have been underserved by traditional hearing solutions,” said Christian Feierl, head of segment audio sensing at ams. “For this type of product, broadband ANC from ams is a must-have feature to enable the hearing buds to block out acoustic distractions from the ambient environment.”

Nuheara released the IQbuds MAX at CES in 2019 … and the new version sounds even better.

Can hearing loss truly be solved? Probably not. The human body deteriorates over time, a fact that’s simply not going to change. But these devices offer to enhance our body’s natural ability, much like technology did for Steve Austin – TV’s Six Million Dollar Man, who went from a crippling test crash to a bionic superman. And who wouldn’t want to be a superman?

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