If so, who will you buy them off?
There has been a huge amount of change and innovation in the hearing loss world in the last few years. Innovation within hearing aids, innovations outside hearing aids, changes within the players and the delivery models and finally changes in legislation with the introduction of the Over The Counter (OTC) act. More than that though, there have been innovations within different technologies not closely aligned to hearing aids that may well have a huge effect such as artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces. As the accepted use case for hearing augmentation devices changes, will hearing aids as we know them still exist in ten years? If they do, who will you buy them off and what will that look like? This is a navel-gazing, what-if exercise, and you know, there is so much to talk about. This will be a long one and I will split it into two articles, otherwise, you might fall asleep on me.
Accommodating hearing loss
Up to now, solutions for the correction of hearing loss has been the domain of hearing aid manufacturers and hearing professionals. However, in the recent past, the concept of hearing loss correction or augmented audio has bled into consumer electronics. Augmented audio has exploded and we can't expect that genie to get back in the bottle.
Right now some headphones correct audio for hearing loss, earbuds that do the same, soundbars that do the same, apps that help you hear in noise, apps that offer aural rehabilitation, apps that allow you to personalise your sound experience. That's just the tip of it, more and more consumer electronics companies are focused on augmented audio and what it means for their product offerings moving forward.
While much of this explosion in the correction of hearing loss can't be seen as anything other than situational help, there are signs that some players are considering taking it into the realms of treatment. Bose, a well-known consumer electronics company has taken the step, who is next? That is something I will speak of next.
One thing is clear from these changes though, there is a demand for augmented audio and plenty of companies are willing to meet that demand. It begs the question, as the offerings in this field grow, will that mean that people with hearing loss put off hearing aid adoption for later?
Changes in provision
I think the first thing we can look at is the changes in the provision model. Right now, we have the traditional model where you see a professional, get tested and buy a hearing aid with a price that includes services. There are many users and prospective users out there who are not enamoured with this model for reasons such as affordability and convenience.
For the first time, there is now a burgeoning online provision model of genuine hearing aid technology. By that I mean, devices that are traditional hearing aids as opposed to just personal amplifiers. That channel currently has three strands, the first is the supply of hearing devices from traditional hearing device manufacturers through online channels accompanied by remote care. Think Lively Hearing.
The second is more interesting and involves the provision of self-fitted hearing aids that are sold online and supported virtually. Think Shift Hearing (owned by Sonova), Bose and Lexie.
The third channel involves hybrid devices, they aren't hearing aids but they do provide hearing loss support or personalised audio. The devices are usually self-fitted and designed more for situational use. Think NuHeara, Alango Technologies, Nuraphone and Anker among others.
The general feeling is that the professional channel will contract, and the other two channels will be directly responsible for that. I am not so sure about that, I think that there will always be a recognisable professional channel, however, what they offer may change.
I think that innovation from within and outside the recognised industry will change what is on offer, how it is fitted, and finally, what happens after the fitting. Leaps forward in machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and connectivity will mean advances in hearing correction that we can only imagine right now. More than that and looking further into the future, brain-machine interfaces may change everything about everything, not just the correction of hearing.
As I said, there is huge innovation around augmented audio right now. From within the traditional hearing aid world, we are seeing leaps forward in technology like noise reduction, battery power, smarter processing systems. Those technologies are all about helping you hear better. But we are also seeing innovation outside that traditional technology such as remote care, machine learning, connectivity and cloud computing that will change the hearing aid experience forever.
Remote care has already made a huge difference to some hearing aid users. Many users had their first taste of remote care during the pandemic. The technology has continued to evolve during that time and most hearing aid manufacturers now provide a system that allows real-time virtual appointments with full control of the hearing aid functions.
Machine Learning Will Mean Massive Change
Machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence will make a massive difference to hearing aid users. They will ensure that the experience with their hearing aids will get better, the more they wear them. They will provide on-the-go personalised fine-tuning of the devices as you wear them daily. This technology and remote care will change the customer experience, trips to a professional for fine-tuning support will reduce and possibly even cease.
A Widening Use Case
We are also seeing a widening of the use case of hearing aids by some of the manufacturers. Moving hearing aid devices beyond helping you hear better towards integrated healthable devices, and integrated connectivity. This widening of the use case will make traditional hearing aids more attractive to prospective users.
Consumer Electronics Crossover
Sonova, one of the biggest hearing device manufacturers in the world recently purchased Sennheiser, a well knows consumer electronics audio brand. It makes sense for both brands and we can probably expect it to lead to interesting things for both business entities.
Signia has just introduced a brand new model range they are calling Active, while they are true hearing aids with all of the technology, they look just like a set of wireless earbuds typical of any consumer electronics company.
Funnily enough, while hearing aid manufacturers are moving their devices towards a more consumer electronics experience, we have Bose, a massive consumer electronics name, offering what can be easily seen as bog-standard self-fit hearing aids. Their new devices aren't rechargeable, don't offer Bluetooth audio streaming and don't even have a telecoil to enable any type of audio streaming.
As I said, Bose has begun to offer self-fit hearing aids with an online purchase and support model. They aren't the first, but they are probably the biggest name. Another more exciting entry into this burgeoning world is a business called Lexie Hearing. They have real legacy in the hearing world, but not with manufacturing.
I say exciting, not necessarily because of the hearing aids they offer. The devices are pretty standard entry-level hearing aids, again with no Bluetooth audio streaming and no rechargeable option. They do have a telecoil though and a remote microphone accessory.
The devices are built by a company called Intricon (more on that later). The exciting thing about Lexie is the I.T. infrastructure they have built to offer excellent on-boarding of the user, a great consumer experience and support. I am quite fascinated to see what Lexie do next.
The Biggest Threat to the Status Quo?
For them, their platform is the prize, to be honest, once they have a self-fitting system for, and remote support access to, the devices, they could be selling any hearing aid device from any manufacturer. That is what fascinates and excites me about them. I think that Lexie could be a bigger threat to the traditional model than any player up to now.
Now that Bose has entered the fray, and the OTC market will finally be open in the US probably in 2022, what other big consumer names are looking upon the situation with interest? We know that Apple has begun to take audiological research seriously as has Facebook funnily enough. That doesn't mean that we will see an Apple or Facebook hearing aid, the research could be about audio augmentation within their products or systems.
Samsung took a very hard look at hearing aids many years ago, even developing a prototype. In the end, they gave it a no but with the recent changes, will they reconsider that move? If Apple entered the fray, I would imagine that Samsung would seriously consider its position. Hell, even Google is looking at audio augmentation, although their experience with hardware hasn't been great.
I am going to include Shift Hearing here as well, while they are made by Sonova and are a traditional type of hearing aid, they are self-fit, remotely supported and sold online. These look like pretty impressive devices, they are Bluetooth, Made For Any Phone, rechargeable hearing aids.
The cost does reflect that though while hearing aids from Bose and Lexie cost less than a thousand US dollars, Shift aids sell for just over two thousand Australian dollars. While Australia is the ideal market for Sonova to explore this provision model, I wonder will they be tempted to widen it to other markets, especially if the OTC market begins to take off? If they do, they may well have to look at the price point.
Reacting to OTC
On that point, how will other traditional hearing aid manufacturers react to a growing OTC market? They certainly can't ignore it and pretend it isn't there. Many users within the OTC market may not actually be the typical prospects for the traditional manufacturers, and they may go on to purchase hearing aids within the traditional channel, but can the manufacturers take that gamble?
Remember Intricon? Well, they are an interesting player, or at least their positioning is. In essence, they make open-source hearing aids for others. That means that any player could move forward with an OTC offering with no manufacturing base.
They could simply outline what they want and negotiate with Intricon to provide them, then set up an online or offline model to offer them to consumers. That fact and the interesting moves by Lexie Hearing make me wonder about other players we have never heard about and what they might do?
There is a lot of venture capital funding sloshing around right now willing to back the next great idea. I think that alongside everything else means that we haven't nearly seen the end of new players.
What Difference May Consumer Devices Make?
I am going to leave this here for the moment and I will explore innovation and technology in augmented audio devices from other brands in the next article. However, I want to leave you with this thought. As you can see from the above, plenty is going on with hearing aids to make them more attractive, more accessible and more affordable. All designed to capture a share of the untapped possible market for hearing aids.
But what if augmented situational devices lower the demand? Think about it for a minute, much of the innovation and product offerings are fueled by the fact that many with mild to moderate hearing loss think they have a situational problem. To them, that problem is not a four thousand dollar problem, maybe it's not even an eight hundred dollar problem?
Especially if they can buy a three hundred dollar pair of earphones that make their music experience better. Use an app on their phone with their earbuds and make their speech in noise understanding better. Or programme their TV to personalise the audio to help make things clearer.
If those situational problems are solved for them by this new wave of augmented audio, will they feel the need to explore hearing aids? Or will it mean that actual hearing aid use, be it cheap and cheerful self-fit or more traditional professional model will become a late intervention tool again?
Anyway, next time we talk about the amazing augmented audio explosion, what's available and from who. I will also finish up with some crystal ball stuff, probably all wrong, but I won't be embarrassed, hey I have been wrong before. See you then.
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