Harvey Fletcher, a scientist at Bell Laboratories, is widely credited with inventing the electric hearing aid — a cumbersome, body-worn device that debuted in the 1930’s.
Eighty years later, a Minnesota company is trying to solve a problem that has eluded decades of innovation: reconcile the problematic device with ordinary life.
Bloomington, Minn.-based ReSound recently introduced technology that can wirelessly stream sound from televisions, cell phones, computers and even iPods to a hearing aid.
By integrating hearing aids with modern consumer electronic devices, the company hopes to energize an industry perpetually hindered by the stigma of hearing loss. In addition, most insurance companies don’t cover hearing aids, which cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 per device.
“Who wants to wear hearing aids?” said Keith Lewis, ReSound’s VP of business development. “It’s a significant problem. Most people wait four-to-seven years to do something about [hearing loss]. The cosmetic side has been addressed. But how do we get this embedded into our daily existence?”
Hearing aid sales increase an average 4-to-5 percent every year in the United States — solid but not spectacular growth. ReSound, which controls 15-to-17 percent of the $1.2 billion wholesale hearing aid market, hopes its Alera and United wireless technologies will change that.
“We’re taking everyday mobile technologies and applying them to hearing aids,” Lewis said. “We’re maybe at a tipping point [of consumer acceptance], because our technology addresses everyday existence.”
ReSound and ReGen, owned by GN ReSound Group in Denmark, along with Starkey Laboratories Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., both have benefited from recent advances in digital sound processing technology.
Today’s hearing aid systems feature powerful minicomputers and software that can quickly process much more information per second than older analog models. As a result, hearing aids can strip out unwanted background noise and boost desired sounds, like human speech.
“If you can process more, you can do more,” Lewis said.
With Alera and Unite, ReSound hopes to preserve wanted background noise. For example, users can participate in conversations, watch television and enjoy music at the same time, even if they are several feet away from the devices. Thanks to Bluetooth technology, ReSound’s system can transit sound directly to a hearing aid without wires, allowing users to move freely.
However, recent innovations in hearing technology could make hearing aids irrelevant in the future.
White Bear Township, Minn.-based start-up Envoy Medical Corp. drew considerable buzz for its Esteem system, which was approved by the Food & Drug Administration earlier this year. The device, which is implanted in the ear, can convert mechanical noise into digital information, clean up the sound, convert the data back to natural sound and transmit it into the brain.
Lewis said he’s watching Envoy with great interest. But he notes the device, which is designed for people with severe hearing loss, is expensive at $30,000 and requires invasive surgery that few doctors in the country are qualified to perform.
When it comes to paying for hearing device like Esteem or Alera, “what is the return on happiness?” Lewis asked.