Here's how hearing aids work today: Oh you can't hear well? Stick this ugly thing inside your earhole. But in the view of a new company called Soundhawk, that's all wrong. Better hearing can be cool.
Soundhawk's new Smart Listening System wants to change the way we experience hearing devices, and hopefully, open them up to a whole new set of consumers by coupling hearing technology with some slick industrial design and UX.
The problem, according to the company's CEO Michael Kisch, is that hearing aids have always been a medical product. You have serious hearing problems and so you go to a specialist and get a specialised hearing aid made for lots of money. The whole experience is unpleasant, and the device is unattractive. It's like braces or a back brace, except you're stuck with it for life.
This approach cuts out a large segment of the population who could benefit from hearing correction, but don't want to be seen as old fogies. They're in their late 30s or 40s and if they were really honest with themselves, they can't hear so well at crowded restaurants. Here's the solution for these people, or at least, the first viable crack at one.
The Smart Listening System consists of a few different parts: The earpiece or "scoop", as the company calls it; a charging case; a wireless mic; and the Soundhawk app. The hardware is all made of soft touch plastics in decidedly Bose colours. It looks like a consumer product rather than something you were handed in the emergency room.
The earpiece has a little microphone inside, and despite those little aesthetic dimples on the side that look like vents sucking in sound, the listening ports are actually on top so that the piece is reversible from left to right. It weighs just six grams.
In designing the earpiece, the company studied earbuds and Bluetooth headsets to see what worked, and settled on this compact, but intentionally not invisible design. It sits comfortably in your ear in a balanced spot, and doesn't protrude out of the imaginary boundaries created by your ear cartilage. In a nice touch, the ergonomics are meticulously thought out so that you'll actually use the system. Pressing the volume button on the headset actually helps push the device back into your ear.
The earpiece works in conjunction with the Soundhawk app which has a series of built-in settings for a number of different "sound scenes" like outdoors and tight indoor spaces. Once you've picked where you are, you dial in the best tuning for your ear using an intuitive touch and drag interface.
In the event that you're in particularly loud place, the small wireless Bluetooth microphone lets you place or clip an ear where ever the sound you want to hear is coming from, and beams it straight back to your ear. So to return to the crowded restaurant example, you can put the mic across the table and finally hear what's going on. The earpiece itself has an eight hour battery and with the extra juice inside the charging case you can get about 24 hours of life, so you do't have to charge this thing all the time.
The experience of using the Smart Listening System is a little odd at first, but that's mostly because I'm not the target audience for this thing. The amplified voice in your ear sounds a little more robotic than real life, but in the event that I wasn't hearing much of anything in some situation, it would certainly be better than nothing. In fact, the Soundhwak team placed the wireless mic under a nearly silent TV, so I could get the experience of hearing something I couldn't before, and it was admittedly pretty remarkable.
Pre-orders for the Soundhawk Smart Listening System open today. The pre-order price will be $US280. Later, it will jump up to $US300.
Soundhawk's mission to bring better listening to more people is certainly admirable. Indeed, as we're increasingly walking around blasting our ears with music everywhere we go, there's evidence to suggest we'll need help with our hearing at a younger age. It remains to be seen whether a corrective hearing device can really become a cool consumer technology. In this iteration, it seems to have all the trappings of something that would catch on because, you know, wearables. Still, for all the thought and care behind the design, part of me still thinks that what we're looking here will carry some stigma. Maybe the key is that the Smart Listening System will be just cool enough that the people who need it won't be afraid to use it. [Soundhawk]
Pictures: Nick Stango