A new class of wearable health tech for hearing loss is coming out from under the radar for 2017. The number of Americans with hearing loss is staggering. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 48 million — about 20 percent — report hearing loss, including one in three people over 65. Of the people who self-report having hearing loss, 60 percent are in the workforce or educational settings. The FDA recently announced it will no longer enforce current hearing aid regulations for adults 18 and older due to the fact that only 20 percent of the population is currently served. In the announcement, the FDA cited the high cost of hearing aids and the requirements for medical evaluations as barriers. A huge segment of the hearing impaired population who don’t need the full power of hearing aids may be helped with much less expensive hearing assistance devices.
“Hearables” as a broad class refers to wearable tech that serves a variety of purposes. Some are primarily intended for listening to music or streaming audio, while others connect to smartphones for hands-free communication. With our focus on Health Tech, we are most interested in hearables that help people with hearing loss. Nuheara‘s IQbuds are one of the first hearing assistance hearables scheduled to be available in 2017. Unlike some other companies who plan to enter this market early, Nuheara brings experience delivering hearing assistance devices for noisy industrial settings where the communications between team members requires controlling environmental sound and improving voice signals.
IQbuds, available for pre-order now and scheduled to ship in Q1 2017, are referred to as “truly wireless,” which means there is no wire connecting to audio sources or between the earbuds. With earbuds intended for music or conversation, truly wireless versions in the past have had issues with synchronization between the two devices. Nuheara uses NXP Semiconductor‘s near-field magnetic induction technology (NFMI) for the ear-to-ear wireless connection between the earbuds, promising fewer audio signal dropouts and low latency time between received sound and playing in the ears through the IQbud’s speakers. Synchronization between the earbuds is also supposed to be better with NFMI than with Bluetooth wireless.
IQbuds use Bluetooth Dual Mode 4.0 wireless to connect to smartphones and audio devices. A mobile app lets users set and save personalized hearing profiles for different environments. IQbuds combine speech amplification and dynamic noise control. According to Nuheara, the IQbuds’ sound processor actively controls environmental sounds (accounting for user presets) while boosting conversation. You can also blend the audio so, for example, you can listen to the full range of music or a podcast while walking down busy city sidewalks, cut out most ambient sound, but still be able to hear an oncoming vehicle as you’re about to cross the street.
IQbuds will come with a case that serves double-duty as a battery charger. The earbuds have a rated battery life up to four hours listening to streaming audio and the case can recharge them three times before it needs to be recharged itself. Allowing additional time for recharging, you could listen as much as 16 hours of streaming audio away from power outlets. Battery life with conversational and environmental use can be up to twice as long as when the IQbuds are used for streaming audio. The sweat-proof and water resistant IQbuds are intended for use all day, with time for recharging.
The promised arrival of a variety of hearing assistance wearables that help people with hearing aids but aren’t quite hearing aids is likely to be one of the most watched wearable health tech categories of 2017.