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Is 2015 the “Year of the Hearable”?

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Blog Page | March 2015 Hearing Review

This blog is an abridged version of Holly Hosford-Dunn’s February 3, 2015 article at her Hearing Economics blog at HearingHealthMatters.org. — David Kirkwood, HHTM editor

By Holly Hosford-Dunn, PhD

A previous post (January 27) highlighted some emerging ear-level devices and left three rhetorical questions dangling:

  • What groups decide which are medical devices and which are consumer devices?
  • Who gets final say on who sells them and how they are sold?
  • Will hearing aids morph into consumer electronic gadgets?

Current thinking on that last question conjures thoughts that were previously unthinkable—at least to most dispensing professionals.

How did it ever get to this? Very quickly. In fact, less than a year. Entrepreneur magazine dubbed 2015 the “Year of the Hearable.”1 Yet Hearables, at least by that name, didn’t even exist until around April 2014.

Mother Nature Network’s “Green Tech” column anointed Hearables as the “Boomer’s answer to the hearing aid” in November 2014.2 That same mnn.com article relegated hearing aids to history in one harsh sentence: “Hearables…the devices formerly known as hearing aids.” So, what happened in 2014?

CES Looked at the Ear and Liked It

Back when we were heatedly arguing the merits and definitions of PSAPs versus hearing aids, electronic innovations were afoot at the January 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where Hearables burst forth as the “game changer.” High-resolution audio content and technologies were put forth as benefits to be enjoyed not only by audiophiles but by anyone with hearing loss or listening/understanding difficulties in near- and far-field situations where background noise interfered with speech intelligibility. The shift from hearing aid to consumer electronics was stated plainly in the coverage of the CES show:

“Any device, or combination of innovative devices and software that helps someone hear better would benefit consumers.”3

In August 2014, a report by Nick Hunn4 seconded the CES motion and nominated ear-level smart wearables as the breakout technology. He predicted a global market of $50 billion globally by 2018, naming them “hearables.”

Meanwhile Back at the PSAP Ranch

That same month saw publication of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) comprehensive survey report on PSAPs.5 The report reinforced the general feeling of the January CES show, concluding that PSAPs were a viable, simple, cost-effective, and acceptable solution for many consumers. The report reached two important economic conclusions:

1) The PSAP market is highly fragmented (no supplier has market power), and

2) Consumers want the right to purchase the devices directly.

Thus, as 2014 wound down, the stage was set for Hearables to become a disruptive innovation, starting with PSAPs for the masses. As one CEA reviewer wrote:

“PSAPs are an important class of device for anyone who needs a hearing boost…likely to be sold everywhere, first online and then at retail outlets like Verizon and Apple Stores, and Walgreens and CVS. Audiologists will probably recommend them as well. Longer term, they herald yet another step towards bionics—improving human performance beyond its natural limitations. My hunch is that PSAPs are getting a toe-hold into a new market, and tomorrow they’ll disrupt the world of hearing aids as we know them.”6 [italics added]

The Thrill of Bionic Hearables

The bionic angle excited the general media, which quickly jumped over PSAPs onto the Hearable bandwagon. Soon after the 2014 CES, NPR’s All Tech Considered blog was already anticipating and extolling the virtues of Hearable-assisted future social networking:

“As you say her name, a little device in your ear picks it up. The device does a search, and microseconds later it feeds you the info it has found on the Web: the college she attended, her current company, that she has two kids and is an avid runner.”7

The same NPR article was one of the first to enumerate Hearable attributes that are now so familiar that they seem self-evident:

1) Unobtrusive;

2) Enable, and sometimes encourage, face-to-face communication; and

3) Integrate easily into our daily lives.

But Isn’t That a Hearing Aid?

Items 1-3 above are likely to leave dispensers and manufacturers puzzled, as the items describe the core of good hearing aid design. Current BTE aids achieve these goals and more. No doubt, premium hearing aids could and will monitor health and fitness without breaking a sweat. Hearing aids have the real estate and technology to do it all. But, when and if they do, the devices formerly known as hearing aids will likely join the ranks of Hearables. When/if that happens, wholesale and retail suppliers will face formidable pricing and distribution challenges that we’ve only glimpsed with PSAPs.

Future posts will circle back to the economic conclusions of the PSAP study. Those conclusions forecast a fragmented distribution landscape for Hearables in which consumers’ strong preference for direct purchase at low cost forces dispensing professionals and the hearing industry to consider changes, even as new suppliers fight for market share.

Change could be good. If the Artist-formerly-known-as-Prince can resume recording after 18 years, there’s no reason to think that hearing aids-by-any-name and the dispensers-who-fit-them will disappear from the market. Like Prince, we just need to figure out a way to make it work.

References

  1. Chandran N. Why hearables could be the next big thing in wearable tech. Entrepreneur. December 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/241388
  2. Alter L. Hearables: Boomers’ answer to the hearing aid. Mother Nature Network [Nov 11, 2014]. Available at: http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/gadgets-electronics/stories/hearables-boomers-answer-to-the-hearing-aid
  3. Belt B. Innovations in assistive technologies. April 11, 2014. Available at: http://www.ce.org/i3/Innovate/2014/March-April/Innovations-in-Assistive-Technologies.aspx
  4. Hunn N. The Market for Smart Wearable Technology: A Consumer Centric Approach. WiFore Consulting, September 2014. Available at: http://www.nickhunn.com/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/08/The-Market-for-Smart-Wearables.pdf
  5. Consumer Electronics Assn (CEA). Personal Sound Amplification Products: A Study of Consumer Attitudes and Behavior. August 2014. Available at: http://www.ce.org/CorporateSite/media/Government-Media/GLA/Report-Personal-Sound-Amplification-Products-A-Study-of-Consumer-Att.pdf
  6. Raskin R. A hearing aid for the rock ‘n’ roll generation. Everydayhealth.com, October 20, 2014. Available at: http://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/tech-pulse/hearing-aid-rock-n-roll-generation
  7. Glazer J. Psst! Wearable devices could make big tech leaps, into your ear. NPR All Tech Considered, April 29, 2014. Available at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/04/23/306171641/psst-wearable-devices-could-make-big-tech-leaps-into-your-ear

 

Holly Hosford-Dunn, PhD, is an audiologist and founding partner and editor of hearinghealthmatters.org. She has developed multi-office private practices in Arizona, authored several textbooks, and now has a degree in economics.

CHIME IN at: http://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearingeconomics

Original citation for this article: Hosford-Dunn, H. Is 2015 the “Year of the Hearable”? Hearing Review. 2015;21(3):10.