Just a few years ago, hearing aids had a limited function. They would compensate for a person’s hearing loss by amplifying the acoustic signals that the brain perceives as sounds. That function could be carried out to varying degrees of satisfaction, but the hearing aid didn’t serve any other purpose.
Today, a hearing aid is part of a digital lifestyle and an ecosystem of personal services that enhance our quality of life. And that is the new context for Oticon’s internet-based hearing aid and accompanying app, HearingFitness, says Ole Asboe Jørgensen, president of Oticon Brand, Global.
“Research has shown a link between untreated hearing loss and an increased risk of developing some types of dementia because the brain is not being sufficiently stimulated,” says Jørgensen.
“This is because people with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves socially as it can be challenging for them to be in noisy environments. Our task is to enable the hearing aid to better support users in their everyday lives, allowing them to dine out, travel, party, etc.”
Hearing aid nudging
Oticon works on several different tracks, adds Michael Porsbo, manager of Digital Innovation at Oticon. First, they try to get first-time hearing aid users to use it more. Many people find it embarrassing to wear a hearing aid, which is why it stays in the drawer much of the time. There are also many who find it too overwhelming to suddenly hear a lot of sounds again after years of hearing impairment.
“These users will in the future experience being nudged toward various activities,” says Porsbo. “It could be changing a program on their hearing aid if they are in a noisy room such as a café, or it could be a call to use it more. This way, they will receive tips and tricks on how to optimize the use of their hearing aid in everyday life.”
With the HearingFitness app, a user and the user’s hearing specialist can see how, and how well, the hearing aid is being used, allowing the user to get even more out of their device. Using Microsoft Azure technology, Oticon collects anonymized data from the hearing aid in the cloud and uses the input to deploy general software updates that enhance the hearing experience for each user.
Automatic audio customization
The user’s social context is a key element in the evolution of Oticon’s hearing aid and associated apps. For example, one day she might be visiting with friends at a café and want sound processing in the hearing aid suitable for conversations. The next day, she might visit the café alone to read a book, which requires completely different sound processing that mutes conversations.
“We are still in the development phase, but you can imagine that we – in an intelligent way – ask the user what kind of sound setting they prefer in a specific situation,” says Porsbo. “You can also imagine that the hearing aid – as it gets to know the user’s habits better – automatically adjusts.”
AI is the future
Improving users’ hearing experience depends on how quickly and intelligently Oticon can gather, analyze and act on individual and aggregated data. To that end, they use Microsoft Azure services to visualize and report data, as well as program automated algorithms in the Azure platform’s many AI tools and frameworks. In the long run, Oticon expects their solutions to become more and more autonomous using data and AI technology.
“The solutions we are doing right now are a bit like concept cars,” says Jørgensen. “We show the direction to a not so distant future, where our products and solutions will be largely based on data. Analysis of data using advanced math and AI is the future. Both for hearing health care and for health care in general.”
Exploratory product development
Together with Microsoft, Oticon took a highly exploratory approach to the project. “We are delighted to partner with Microsoft because we learn from each other across industries,” says Porsbo.
“It means a lot that we can test ideas quickly. This approach can only be achieved because we work together in the cloud, where the tools are easily accessible, the flexibility is high and where the gap between thought and action is minimal. What previously would have taken months for us to develop can be tested in a few weeks now.”