Bluetooth 5

Industry standard from mass market of consumer electronics extends to hearing healthcare

The new generation of Bluetooth specification (BT5) will provide a standard that will finally draw a wireless bridge between the hearing aid and the smart phone. This is also a step of symbolic significance – it marks the convergence of miniature electronics of hearing aids and the electronics for the mass market of consumer products. And this has a potential to bring a substantial change to the introvert hearing aid industry.

Idea of connecting hearing aid with a smart phone was both obvious and exciting. But the promise of the “made for iPhone” hearing aid has not yet materialized as a genuinely new functionality. It provided a gradual technological innovation – but failed to create a new use case. In addition to substituting for a miniature telephone headset “made for i Phone” hearing aids utilized a smart phone touch-screen to emulate a remote control – a decades-old functionality, with a contemporary price tag.

On the other side of the “medical product” regulation fence, a booming but chaotic activity is apparent. Wearables, Hearables, PSAPs, body-worn communication devices etc. are sprouting from the crowdfunding campaigns. (It seems however, that the excitement of the technological gold-rush is depriving those newcomers of time and patience necessary to finalize their products in a quality required in a medical market.)

Lively activity in the app-stores as well: hearing enhancement apps and diagnostic tools are attracting increasing numbers of regular users. Those are the users that are avare of hearing dificulties and clearly motivated to make the hearing test – but are not adressed by today’s hearing aid products. The following of those Apps might be modest by measures of blockbusters from Web 2.0, but their numbers are quite large for the hearing aid industry, where 100 000 users represents a crowd that only few leading hearing aid manufacturers can attract.

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So, under this market circumstances, what difference BT5 is going to make?

Technologically, the gap between the hearing aid and the smart phone will be closed by a standardized link. The designation for this connection is Hearing Aid Profile for Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth enabled hearing devices will provide energy efficient services for:

  • Control of hearing aid
  • Wireless telephoning and
  • Wireless streaming musical/entertainment content

This all has been possible before, but only by means of proprietary technology which often was an intentional barrier to interoperability between devices.

With establishing the Bluetooth hearing aid profile the wireless channel becomes transparent and unified. This opens a technological option within operating systems iOS and Android to routinely connect any hearing aid with any app, and any hearing aid with any communication device. More innovative than the “audio link” will for sure be the “information link” – continuous, real-time connection to the immense digital platforms of the web 2.0. The fitting of hearing aids, exclusively made by trained professionals in brick-and-mortar shops might then partially move into the digital realm.
As the wireless link becomes technological routine, and the wealth of data from the digital biosphere transforms into robust intelligence about behavior, preferences and daily habits of hearing impaired users, the safety and efficacy concerns related with self-fitting of medical devices will soften.

Even if the hearing aid industry and regulatory bodies decide to keep the hearing aid product clearly separated from the consumer-electronics devices and applications, the BT5 Hearing Aid Profile will be open for all. It will enrich the features and enhance the performance of unregulated hearing products, providing better, affordable wireless solutions to more clients. A single hearing device will in the future be compatible with different audio applications (telephone, music streaming service, TV-set…), but also with different sources of audiologic data or specialized apps (diagnostic, fitting, counselling…) that will serve as functional extensions for a hearing aid hardware.

Later this year, after BT 5 is announced and after the first smart phone models with BT5 arrive to the stores, the field for novel hearing healthcare solutions will be open much wider – be prepared for more news from there.