Odds are pretty good that anyone reading this article has some hearing damage from loud noise. According to a 2017 CDC report, almost one in four adults who rated their hearing as good to excellent actually had measurable hearing loss. Men in general along with people age 40 years and older are more likely to have hearing loss than women or people 40 years old or younger. But even younger people are losing some degree of hearing, usually due to exposure to loud sounds at work or elsewhere.

We’ve written about hearing aids such as the new generation Phonak Audeo Paradise platform and Lexie Lumen direct to consumer devices for people with moderate to severe hearing loss. We also have written about a raft of hearables, hearing assistance wearable developed for people with mild-to-moderate hearing impairment, most notably the multiple generations of Nuheara’s IQ Buds platform and Wear & Hear’s BeHear Access and BeHear Now. So far, however, we’ve not covered age-related hearing loss assistance technology for people who aren’t even aware of their impairment.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering are developing a low-cost hearing assistance device specifically for the millions of people worldwide who have age-related hearing loss but can not afford conventional hearing aids or even the current hearables. Assistant professor M. Saad Bhamla and other engineers continue to work on a revolutionary device they call LoCHAid. Prototypes of the LoCHAid resemble audio earbuds rather than hearing aids.

The Georgia Tech team build the device from open-source parts they say cost about $1 in a 3D-printed case. The LoCHAid devices won’t have all the features of hearing aids, which average $4,700 for a pair, or even $300 to $500 for lower cost hearables. The Georgia Tech design eschews more costly digital signal processors (DSPs) in favor of a linear gain device with electronic filters that shape the frequency response from the audio gain.

The Georgia Tech engineers describe their design in a paper published in PLOS ONE. The next steps include clinical and user trials followed by hoped-for certification as medical devices. “We have shown that it is possible to build a hearing aid for less than the price of a cup of coffee,” Bhamla said in a Georgia Tech publication. “This is a first step, a platform technology, and we’ve shown that low cost doesn’t have to mean low quality.”