DOSSIER Hearing aids: Where are we?
We often talk about technological advances intended to improve optical devices. But what about hearing aids? Often associated, optics and hearing nevertheless follow different paths. But hearing is no less down the path of innovation. We talk about it in this new file.
Hearing aids: a bit of history
Hearing problems are not new! Since ancient times, people have been looking for ways to hear better. When research has finally – belatedly – focused on the subject, the means to see better are much more elaborate. But the 20th century will considerably help to make up for this delay. It must be said that a device allowing better hearing is more complex than one allowing better seeing.
The arrival of electricity changed the situation. Technology based on radiophony was used to develop the first Sonotones. Previously, you had to use the acoustic horn – not really very practical – a tube or funnel device that collects the waves and transmits them to the user's eardrum. This curious object was invented by a French surgeon, Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, in the 17th century. In our cultural imagination, we all remember Professor Calculus using an auditory cornet.
Then came the carbon hearing aid, imagined and designed by Hutchison. Thanks to this invention, there is a marked improvement in hearing, of about 10 to 15 dB. Of course, the system is far from perfect, since the background noises and parasites are numerous and amplified.
It is therefore the Sonotone, named after the American company that created it, which will change the situation.
Deafness problems, more and more numerous
With the evolution of the world, our ears are not put to rest. The 20th century, in particular, was a nightmare for them. Industry has been greatly enriched with ever louder machines, the military sector has developed and used bombing in already deadly wars, music has become widespread and is now listened to with personal headphones, noise pollution of cities is up sharply compared to the beginning of the century.
All of this combined, it is easy to understand that the number of people who need a hearing aid is constantly increasing. The aging of the population has something to do with it either.
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.5 billion people suffer from "more or less pronounced" hearing loss. A figure that should not be reduced quickly.
Also, the need for innovation was quickly felt, and as in the case of the optical sector, research has made 'huge steps forward.
Innovation at the service of hearing aids
Hearing systems have been taken to the next level. Thanks to bluetooth, the first advances last quickly: connect your audio device to your smartphone. Effective in greatly improving the quality of telephone calls and obtaining better general hearing. This connected aid also has the advantage of minimizing latency.
But innovation goes much further. The primary goal is of course to improve user comprehension as much as possible, even in increasingly noisy environments, as we have seen. It is the listening intention that is sought, thanks to artificial intelligence and algorithms. Using cerebral activity would promote listening to people or situations in which the user is interested. This same system would protect against noise when listening is not "voluntary."
Modern hearing aids make hearing purer and more natural. Thanks to microphones integrated into the device, it is possible to adapt the signal to the ear canal specific to each one. Better sound signal processing is the key to achieving comfort and serenity for people with hearing loss.
Facilities for finding a practitioner or reducing tinnitus
It's not just the hearing aid that can be improved. Tinnitus can also quickly become destabilizing, even very annoying. People who suffer from it are constantly forced to pay attention to their hearing. Not easy in our ultra-noisy environments!
Here again, digital technologies help. Many mobile applications, such as ReSound, help reduce tinnitus. They operate using "relaxing soundscapes." These programs work like therapy. They help mask tinnitus by focusing on soft, natural sounds. Most of these applications also become an important educational tool. They also facilitate the search for practitioners.
Augmented reality to further improve the hearing aid
There is still a lot of work to be done to perfect the hearing of people with disabilities. Hearing problems, and inner ear problems more generally, are also at the root of other disorders, such as cognition and balance. The auditory canal is also an important source of data, in terms of brain activity or heart rate.
Augmented reality, widely used in optics, can also make everyday life much easier disabled people. Research is already going in this direction. They would make it possible to account for considerable progress in the improvement of hearing in a global way. A good way to respond to the concerns of the WHO on the subject.
However, it will take many more years before such devices are operational, marketable and above all, within reach. of all. Because, as in any question related to progress, the social aspect is associated. Solving it will be essential, as people with few means are those who are most subject to high decibels, medical deserts and of course the impossibility of obtaining effective devices.
As in the case optics, the technical part will not be the only one to solve.