Better Hearing through Better Technology (and affordable too!)

A few short weeks ago I was browsing the iOS app store, as I do on occasion, for 'hearing aid apps'.  I had this crazy notion that my smartphone had a microphone, the ability to output sound to earphones and was a pretty darned sophisticated computer.  To me, that adds up to all of the pieces you need for a decent hearing aid.

 

Mind you, I'm not deaf.  Although, those in my life would tell you that it can be frustrating to engage me in an audio fashion.  Conversations often include the word "huh?", or "what was that?".  

TV watching with me can be a challenge (or so I'm told) since I usually turn the volume up pretty loud and/or turn on closed captions.  Both of these things can be disrupting to those with good hearing.

So, I've had a goal, for quite some time to find an app to help me solve this hearing problem of mine.  My friend, Allison Sheridan (who will figure into this story more soon) would appreciate me setting out with a "problem to be solved", as that overarching goal is pretty much her tech-mantra.

I've tried several 'hearing aid apps' over the past few years and none really seemed to help me nearly as much as I had hoped.  Several ended up being advertisements for other hearing related services.

 

Enter Hearing Aid Pro from an awesome Hungarian developer named Gábor Szántó, of iMect ltd.

 Enter   Hearing Aid Pro  from an awesome Hungarian developer named Gábor Szántó, of  iMect ltd .

Enter Hearing Aid Pro from an awesome Hungarian developer named Gábor Szántó, of iMect ltd.

I downloaded Hearing Aid Pro and tried it with my standard Apple EarPods and was immediately impressed.  

Shortly after that I was fortunate enough to have a loaned pair of TrekZ Titanium bluetooth bone conduction earphones.

Why these headphones you might ask... Well, let me slip into Professor Mode for a moment (I'm a neuroscientist by training).

There are two kinds of deafness.

  1. Neural Deafness:  Characterized by damage to the nerve cells of the cochlea.  Not much any headphones might do to help with profound neural deafness.  Cochlear implants can help but are quite expensive and require surgery.
  2. Conduction Deafness:  You likely remember learning about "ear bones" (auditory ossicles) back in junior high science class.  You learned of the "hammer", "anvil", and "stirrup".  Those three little bones are the smallest bones in the body and serve as both vibration pathways and amplifiers between the ear drum and the inner ear (cochlea).  They are often damaged by childhood ear infections.  When damaged they fail to conduct and amplify sound as well as they should.

To gain a bit of understanding about how this second type of deafness might be circumvented you can try a couple of simple experiments yourself.  Lay  your head down on a heavy wooden table, ear down.  Now rap on the table with your knuckles, as if knocking on a door.   If by chance you have a tuning fork (who doesn't, eh?!?)  tap the fork to start it vibrating, then put the stem (handle) on the cheek bone just in front of your ear.  In both cases you'll hear the tone/vibration amplifying through your skull.  Effectively your skull becomes one large speaker cabinet.

Bone Conduction technology has been around a while.  Back in the '90s I recall a product called the "Bone Phones" (or similar).  It was a scarf-like device that you draped over your neck, and was worn under a jacket, or so my scattered memory tells me.  It caused vibrations in your ribs and shoulders and supposedly let you hear your music while active.  I believe their advertisement showed someone snow skiing with this think on.  

Cut to the new millennium and you will find several bluetooth headsets that use bone conduction to deliver sound.  Instead of standard in-ear, or over-ear speakers these use vibration pads that sit over the bones in front of your ears.  There they vibrate, essentially turning your whole skull into the speaker diaphragm.  The result actually sounds quite good.

I was lucky enough to be loaned a pair of TrekZ Titanium headphones by a student (recall I am a professor of Anatomy & Physiology).  This student was excited a few days before when a lecture on ear physiology explained to him how his new toy worked.  He was excited to share.  Naturally I wanted to try my new-found Hearing Aid Pro app with these very cool headphones.  I was lucky enough to have the use of his headphones for a couple of days before I had to return them.

 

Sadly, what happened was that the headphones were not recognized.  I could not get beyond the "Please connect your headphones" message.  Since these were wireless they weren't recognized.


Well, I don't give up easily.  I reached out through the developer's support email and reached an incredibly helpful guy.  Gábor Szántó.  Gábor is the developer of Hearing Aid Pro and was quite willing to explain why the app was not designed to be used with wireless headphones.

As designed (originally) the app was using the microphone on a standard iPhone headset, which has a built-in microphone.  As normally connected, this microphone is wired directly to the phone and offers a very fast connection for the sound to get to the phone to be processed.  Audio engineers refer to this as "low latency".  Regular people just realize the issue as "no echo" or "no lag".

He explained to me that if he allowed the bluetooth headphones to connect and use their microphones (as the app was designed) then there would be a lag while the headphones sent that sound to the phone for processing and another lag while the sound was sent back to the headphones to be played.

We continued our discussion over a few hours via email exchange.  I honestly forget which of us suggested using the microphone on the iPhone itself do the capture of the surrounding audio, since it was on the phone already and would not have the lag time.  Regardless, both of us were excited about this idea.  So, forward with that plan.  I offered to test the app since I had access to these headphones

In under an hour, Gábor sent me an email with a link to the first beta version of the app with this idea implemented.  I was able to connect the app, but there were a few weird behaviors.  We went on that way with me explaining issues, and Gábor tweaking his app.   Within an afternoon we had a version of the app that worked pretty well with the TrekZ Titanium headphones.  

I wore the headphones and used the app at a biology seminar that afternoon and was utterly amazed.  I heard every word the speaker said that day.  Even better I heard all of the questions asked, even the mumbled ones from the back of a large auditorium!  I let Gábor know we were certainly on the right track!

Sadly, I had to return my borrowed headphones.   This meant that testing was at a bit of a standstill.  I reached out to the marketing team at AfterShokz and me the awesome Caleigh.  After hearing my story she graciously offered to send a pair of headphones for me to use in testing.  She also sent along a pair for Gábor, though I am still working out details on shipping to Hungary (it's challenging!).  After a couple more slight revisions to the app it is pretty darned reliable with these bone conduction headphones.

I had a blast visiting with Allison Sheridan in an  interview for her Chit Chat Across the Pond technology podcast by Allison Sheridan on Dec 2, 2016.  Allison runs Chit Chat as well as the NosillaCast podcast, both generally focusing on technology "with an EVER so slight Macintosh bias". Aside - don't let the gal kid you, she's biased as hell!  I reached out to inform Allison about my project because she is an avid and dedicated supporter of using technology for helping both visually and hearing challenged communities.  I knew she would be interest and boy was she EVER.  In short order, Allison had purchased her own set of TrekZ Titanium headphones.  She and I agreed to elitist (read that as coerce) friends and family members over the Thanksgiving 2016 holiday to test out the combination of app and headphones.

Both myself and Allison each had at least one relative that was seriously impressed with how well they were helped.  For me, it was my cousin Pat.  Pat says she passes hearing tests just fine, but still insists she has trouble hearing. In her words "Of course I hear fine, you stuck those darned headphones over my ears to block out all other sounds!".  Regardless, she LOVED how well the app and headphone combination helped her!  For Allison, it was her mother-in-law who was thrilled with how well the app and headphone combo helped her.  She immediately asked if she could install the app on her iPad.

As for myself the power duo of app & TrekZ is makingTV watching at home much easier.  I lay my phone over on the TV stand, pop on my TrekZ headset and lounge on the couch.  The volume is down low enough that my girlfriend is quite happy she needs no ear plugs and I can hear just fine.

So... if you find yourself constantly struggling to hear and are not quite sure whether you're ready for the big step of hearing aids quite yet.  I'd strongly suggest checking out the combination of Hearing Aid Pro and TrekZ Titanium headphones.  Oh, and while I'm thinking of it... If you choose to buy the TrekZ from Amazon, please consider using Allison's Amazon affiliate link to make the purchase.  It costs you exactly the same amount but Amazon gives back a little bit to help support the awesome technology podcasts produced by Allison over at Podfeet.com.

 

Thanks for reading!  Come back for more...   Terry