Health officials recommend that people wear masks to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, this prudent practice can make it harder to understand what others are saying. People with normal hearing often attend to facial expressions and lip movement to understand what others are saying. These visual clues are even more important to those of us with hearing impairment. We’ve written about many hearing assistance devices and hearing aids this year, but so far with no overlap with pandemic-related technology coverage.

Starkey‘s latest rechargeable hearing aid technology includes several industry firsts, but the headliner for us is the soon-to-be-released Mask Mode. Starkey announced Mask Mode as one of the new features in the latest model in its line of Livio Edge AI hearing aids. Mask Mode employs sensors in the hearing aids and artificial intelligence to determine when the user is talking with someone wearing a mask. Upon recognizing a mask-wearing speaker, the AI makes real-time adjustments to help the user hear more clearly. Adjusting for speech clarity isn’t just increasing the volume. When AI shapes sound environments, the algorithms can lessen the level or acoustically cancel non-speech elements such as background noise and enhance the frequencies associated with speech.

Livio Edge AI combines Starkey’s Edge Mode deep neural net AI that dynamically adjusts for enhanced speech comprehension as the wearer moves between different settings. The Intellivoice Hearing Reality Pro enhancement is for people with 50-decibel or more hearing loss (moderate to severe loss). Declaring the new model as “the world’s smallest, most powerful 2.4 GHz rechargeable BTE (behind-the-ear)” hearing aids, Starkey’s latest release also includes a new shaping algorithm to mask wearers’ tinnitus. Other features include live remote support with video via a smartphone app, Find My Phone to help owners locate their smartphones, and an available Fall Alert feature to help older people maintain their independence.

Major hearing aid companies continue to push the technology with new features that enhance the overall user experience as well as differentiate the medical devices from hearing assistance technology, aka hearables. Starkey’s Mask Mode is a timely addition to its AI capabilities by adding a mask-wearer signature to its range of sound environment responses. With Mask Mode, you may not be able to read a mask-wearers’ lips or discern their expressions as easily as in mask-free interactions, but the AI-enhanced speech elements should be a significant help.