Amid an aging population worldwide, leading domestic and international vendors are scrambling for a share of the healthcare market, making hearable devices the next development highlight following wearable devices. Advancing chip technologies will enable smart earphones or hearing aids to customize voice and music quality for users based on each individual's specific hearing capacity. This will help seniors overcome embarrassing hearing loss problems and significantly improve their quality of life.
Taiwan-based companies such as BenQ Corporation and international leaders like Amazon are actively putting efforts into the healthcare service sector. There are wide-ranging smart applications being developed to address age-related hearing loss. For example, Anhui Province in China has built the China Speech Valley industrial park. As a matter of fact, worldwide supply of hearing devices currently only meets 10% of the demand, causing a large supply shortage in the hearing aid market. With the technology catching up with the trend, smart earphones mainly targeting young people are now eyeing opportunities from the elderly people and increasingly overlap with hearing aids.
Dr. Kuo-Ping Yang, chairman, UnlimiterHear, pointed out the US Senate passed the OTC Hearing Aid Act in August 2017, which requires the FDA to develop regulations for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids for individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss. An OTC hearing aid will cost about one-tenth the price of a traditional hearing aid. It is expected the new act will significantly lower the barrier for vendors to enter the OTC hearing aid market and trigger growth for hearable devices.
Dr. Yang received his Ed.D. degree in special education and computer technology at Johns Hopkins University and worked in the field of technology education in the US. After returning to Taiwan, Dr. Yang founded the company specializing in the R&D of assistive technology, AI speech and hearing modules, with over 100 patents related to hearing and acoustics.
Sounds in the frequency range from 20Hz to 20,000Hz are generally audible to the human ear, said Dr. Yang. The actual audible range may be determined by age and how you use your ears. Younger people can hear high pitched sounds while due to degenerating inner ear hair cells, older people may have a smaller audible range and difficulty discerning high-frequency consonants. For example, they may confuse the sound "s" with "d" and mistake "sao-di" for "dao-di." Those who speak to older people have to raise their voice but they can still be misheard and end up in a quarrel.
According to WHO statistics, there were 360 million persons in the world with disabling hearing loss and the number has risen to 500 million over recent years. Seniors aged 65 or older make up half of the global population experiencing hearing loss and their quality of life is seriously deteriorating. Some data even indicate that three out of ten senior citizens have trouble engaging in normal conversations due to degenerative hearing loss.
Conventional hearing aids only increase the sound volume but do not change the frequency. However, high-frequency hearing loss accounts for 70% of the cases. This is why if you can't hear the TV clearly and you turn up the volume, you can only solve 30% of the problem. UnlimiterHear has developed an algorithm that can detect subtle high pitched consonants inaudible to the user within 1.5ms, then shift the high frequency signal to a low frequency and adjust it so that the user gets a less distorted sound. It also reduces noise so only the speech sound is amplified for the user to hear. The cutting-edge algorithm is built into chipsets which can be integrated with a range of hearable devices. An app is also available to keep track of the user's hearing characteristics and smartly adjust the received sound frequencies.
IEEE established smartphone hearing test standards in 2015 to facilitate hearing assessment. Dr. Yang indicated hearing screening tests are fundamental to hearing care. As a member of the US committee setting national hearing standards, UnlimiterHear provides hearing screening, hearing protection, personalized music and remote voice control solutions so even in underdeveloped areas with limited healthcare resources, people with mild to moderate hearing loss can use the app for self-testing. These solutions offer quick and convenient assistance to the elderly people.
UnlimiterHear develops AI hearing aid modules for the elderly market
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