Small, smart, connected: hearing solutions and smart home applications
Small, smart, connected: hearing solutions and smart home applications
The latest communication technology trends also affect hearing systems: These tiny hearing amplifiers are getting smarter and can sometimes be connected to other systems. REHACARE.com recaps the latest trends in hearing aid technology, explains the present limitations and explores other applications for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Adaptive noise suppression, situation recognition/analysis and automatic speech enhancement – modern hearing systems can already do an incredible amount. They are so small and easy to use that it is easy to forget what they are capable of.
Sound quality, digitization, connectivity – our smartphones are pocket-sized computers we carry with us that can do so much more than just make phone calls. Once it was no longer enough to make and receive phone calls and text messages, the Internet came around and prompted us to browse the net on our mobile device. At this point, we want to control, view, access and call up any information anywhere, anytime – using our smartwatch, smartphone, or tablet. Hearing aids are affected by the same trends as innovations in communication. "Megatrends in the communications industry also impact our industry sector," says Ralf Oedekoven, Managing Director Communication Technologies in Rehabilitation for the Hearing Impaired (REHA-COM-TECH).
Connectivity and smart home applications are trending
Like most of today’s devices, hearing aids are getting smaller and lighter. Modern hearing solutions are small-sized, technically advanced minicomputers – and essentially tiny hearing amplifiers. Plus, they keep getting smarter. Today’s hearing systems can recognize or analyze conversations and ambient situations. They can determine the direction of a sound source and filter out ambient or background noise, for example. And: "An increasing number of our products come with Bluetooth capabilities. More and more applications use the smartphone to enhance listening for people with hearing impairments, with manufacturers offering apps that control hearing aid settings," says Oedekoven.
With the Bellman Vibio Bed Shaker, you'll never oversleep again. You can intuitively set the desired alarm time and other alarms via the corresponding app on your smartphone.
With modern hearing aids, you can listen wirelessly to music or make phone calls. "In a few years, you will be able to turn on your coffee maker with your hearing aids," predicts Peter Osterkamp, branch manager of the BAGUS Children's Hearing Center and Hearing Systems Duisburg. "Of course, for now that’s still more of a gimmick." Less gimmick, more substance would be the chance to access physiognomic data via multiple connected devices, as we know it from pedometers, for example. In the future, you could also track blood oxygen saturation if that is a function you want to take advantage of.
Ralf Oedekoven knows how popular smart home applications and high-speed connectivity of smart devices have become. REHA-COM-TECH offers smart solutions for all areas of life – whether it pertains to alert/signaling systems, alarms or other products that can support users even beyond the realm of hearing aids. According to the managing director, one of the store’s top products and a prime example of smart home connectivity and intuitive design is the Bellman Vibio Bluetooth bed shaker. "You set the alarm by using an app on your smartphone to activate the vibrating pad under your pillow via Bluetooth at the desired time. The alarm is smart and intuitive thanks to the latest technologies and features a great design that also makes people without hearing impairments buy the device."
Battery technology makes it possible for us to manage our lives with different smart devices. Rechargeable "lithium-ion batteries have seen a widespread adoption and are also popular in more and more hearing aids," says Osterkamp. "Like an electric toothbrush, you simply place the devices in the charging base at night and take them out fully charged in the morning."
Despite all the smart and practical features that may – or may not – sound like a gimmick, hearing aids still have limitations. "Overall, they are very durable and robust – especially pediatric hearing systems," says Peter Osterkamp. But he adds that they are like smartphones, meaning they can fall to the ground. Nothing might happen the first five times, but the sixth time the device falls to the ground, the screen is broken. When a hearing aid drops onto a tile floor, it obviously can break. That’s unavoidable. "Sweat is still the biggest enemy of hearing aids. Most devices are waterproof, but not sweat-resistant," explains the BAGUS branch manager. That is why you should preferably not exercise with your hearing aids on – whether you have behind-the-ear or in-the-ear hearing aids.
That being said, the best hearing technology is worthless if it is not the right choice from an acoustic fit or medical perspective. After all, if a high-performance device does not give you the improved hearing you may expect in quiet surroundings, an implant may be the better option for you. Whatever the case may be, there is always a fitting solution according to Osterkamp.
Some problems, such as background noise, can be solved with help for the helper as it were. "Hearing aids are constrained by limitations caused by loud or disruptive background noise. Situations include restaurants, bank counters, school settings or on a guided tour," says Oedekoven. "This is where our small and discreet hearing amplifiers come in. Equipped with high-tech directional microphones, they only pick up the sound from the front and an induction loop system transmits an audio signal directly into a hearing aid via a receiver. This almost completely eliminates the effect of background noise."
Hearing amplifiers make it possible to overcome acoustic communication barriers, but they offer even more potential applications: thanks to digital signal processing and easy use and operation, hearing amplifiers can also make phone calls or watching TV an enjoyable experience again. In 2019, the hearing and acoustics experts at HUMANTECHNIK GmbH showcased the earis® TV listening system. REHACARE visitors were among the first to see how it works. The earis® series includes the earis® Premium and the earis® XS devices. The earis® Premium model uses an algorithm to dynamically and continuously calculate and optimize the sound for the individual user – based on the pre-selected settings. The earis® XS is a slightly more affordable model that still provides maximum speech intelligibility. No matter which model you choose, they all deliver the highest sound quality.
The premium version of the earis® TV hearing system is characterized in particular by the so-called "dynamic sound HS". These are a total of five sound patterns that represent different hearing preferences. The user selects according to his or her own preferences at the touch of a button.
Lack of awareness limits access to assistive technologies
With its headquarters in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the company knows what’s important in their line of work. The HUMANTECHNIK team also includes deaf employees, which is why the experts not only offer many complementary hearing solutions but also provide assistive technology for private use and to make everyday life easier for deaf people and those with hearing impairments.
Light alerting devices are one example, which are also favorites among colleagues at REHA-COM-TECH. Ralf Oedekoven attests that "these tools help people with hearing impairments to receive auditory alarms at home – including doorbell and phone signaling, smoke detection or baby cry signaling – via loud tones, flashing lights or vibrations. When our customers tell us how excited they are to 'hear' the doorbell again, it inspires us to make people even more aware of these useful systems."
The intensity of the light flashes of the Visit Flash Receiver indicates an alarm to the residents, whether if there's someone at the door or the telephone rings.
He adds that those affected are quite often not even aware of these available options and that depending on the degree of hearing loss, the German statutory health insurance system actually covers the cost. Given this fact and since the right wording – both as it pertains to the directive and the assistive technology application – is likewise crucial, "REHA-COM-TECH offers full-service for our clients. We handle the entire application process, starting with contacting the treating physician and assisting with prescription wording, to applying for medical reimbursement with the health insurance company," says Oedekoven.
Peter Osterkamp is also versed in coverage and reimbursements issues as it relates to the German statutory health insurance system. The BAGUS branch manager explains that "Bluetooth is a simple way of pairing and connecting multiple devices with one another, but these types of hearing aids are not eligible for reimbursement by German statutory health insurance companies – that's a big mistake in my book. It’s a cost-saving strategy that must be eliminated. Health reimbursement arrangements must be adapted to reflect the current state of technology."
But even if costs are reimbursed, the technology must continue to improve and not just when it comes to connectivity or the previously mentioned integration of medical parameters. "Digitalization is the general Achilles' heel in this setting. We have visions of 5G, yet 4G is far from being the overall existing infrastructure on a nationwide scale at this juncture. The devices quickly reach their limits when Internet connections are sluggish or not available," says Osterkamp.
Communication at all levels
Incidentally: A reliable Internet connection also supports another type of communication – video remote interpreting. At the trade fair back in 2019, REHACARE.com interviewed service providers TeleSign Deutschland GmbH and Tess-Sign & Script-Dienste für hörgeschädigte Menschen GmbH and learned how their tools make it easier for people with hearing impairments or deaf persons to make phone calls. Although one click, or Messenger can help us get many things done quickly online, phone calls are still a popular mode of communication in the professional realm. Services that assist hearing impaired and deaf persons people via video calls need a stable, reliable Internet connection – especially when the caller is not at home and out and about.
Osterkamp points out that apart from the digital infrastructure, there is also a lack of a uniform standard for the respective devices. "With some devices, you can change the batteries yourself, while others must be sent to the manufacturer for replacement. Everyone sort of does their own thing, which results in limited connectivity or a non-intuitive user interface." It’s an aspect that should be carefully considered: Is it easy to handle the device and is it the right fit for the user? At the end of the day, the best device is useless if users don’t accept it or don’t know how to use it correctly.
As always when it comes to technology, the experts must receive continuous training to stay up to date on industry knowledge and trends and to find the best assistive technology that helps their customers to make daily life easier.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com