The Oticon OPN links to alarm systems in the home, and helps users hear better in a crowd
As healthcare tech and wearables make it easier for people to maintain active lifestyles without having to seek special care or move away, expectations have grown quickly for the technology. Oticon Opn is a new hearing aid that meets those new standards, both in terms of its audio software, and that it can connect to other devices.
“With Opn we’ve taken a giant leap forward – for both hearing aids and the Internet of Things,” said Søren Nielsen, President of Oticon A/S, who emphasized that the hearing aid moves beyond an IoT focus on consumer convenience to improving quality of life in new ways for wearers.
Oticon A/S, a Danish company first founded in 1904, advertises its new device as an addition to the internet of things that “can be programmed to talk directly with doorbells, smoke detectors & other smart devices” though its accompanying Oticon ON app over the IFTTT Network. (For data privacy reasons, though, both the device and the app “offer no direct connection to other IoT devices.”)
“The ability to handle noisy environments with multiple speakers” is one of the device’s main features according to the company, and according to Manager of Technology Assessment, Annette Mazevski, “The #1 problem our user base has is hearing in noise, typically,” though people have other issues as well, like not being able to hear well over the phone in particular.
That user base is primarily people in their 50s and 70s, the demographic that accounts for half of the 500 million people worldwide who suffer from hearing loss. But the hearing aids are also used by younger individuals who’ve suffered injuries as children or been born with hearing problems, or about 8% of people with hearing problems. As Oticon’s Vice President of Marketing Shenna Oliver told Geektime, “Homes equipped with smart devices have the potential to make it easier for the older adults to stay in their own homes or in assisted living situations longer.”
To filter out ambient noise while “attenuating noise and preserving distinct (understandable) speech,” Director of Product Management Jens Rosenstand says, its trademark Velox processor “scans the environment 100 times per second – 360 degrees around the wearer and constantly communicates between the devices to align the sound environment.”
Velox powers the OpenSound Navigator platform, and is aimed at reducing the amount of attention people need to pay to focus on conversations they might otherwise have trouble discerning due to background noise or people talking over each other in a group.
Rosenstand told Geektime that building the device had “many hurdles” to overcome, not least the need for a dual radio system, of which one part is dedicated to ear-to-ear communication and the other, device connectivity over a 2.4GHz Bluetooth spectrum. And though it has an Android app, Oticon focused on Apple devices first because, unlike Android, iOS allows streaming audio on the hearing aids – something that Android doesn’t support yet.
The system can determine the direction sounds are coming from, and provides “a constant flow of information about exact position of all sounds to enable wearers to easily locate and focus on preferred sounds while surrounding sounds remain accessible but not intrusive.”
The battery was also a challenge, a power plant of 1.4 volts that supports the two radios as well as the advanced speech understanding technology.
This level of miniaturization was an important part of the design process so it would be less noticeable and bulky, which is one reason why Miss Junior Teen Tennessee Emma Conn uses the device. It is her first hearing aid, she says, adding that she really likes “the geolocation app that knows as soon as I go into a classroom and turns down the sound of my classmates and lets me zero in on what the teacher is saying,” among its other Bluetooth features, such as music streaming and hands-free smartphone support.
In particular, it “doesn’t magnify the noise I don’t want to hear,” and works well in large settings, even a classroom or restaurant, meaning the device helps Emma focus on what she really wants to experience in these settings, rather than straining to make sense of a cacophony of background noise.