Hearing Aids for the Unimpaired

LONDON – Hearing aids are not just for deaf people. The much-maligned ear implants also hold the key to a new era in personal audio technology, designers say – if only they can make them as fashionable as spectacles.

HearWear -­ The Future of Hearing, a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, shows off trendy deaf-tech prototypes like gadgets that can filter out annoying noises and memory glasses that replay the last few seconds of conversation — handy for wearers who might have missed someone’s name.

It’s not just the hard-of-hearing who can benefit from applications inspired by traditional hearing aids. Hearing is the next sense ripe for a technological revolution, according to the exhibition’s organizer, Royal National Institute for the Deaf, or RNID.

The exhibit features personal hearing devices, such as aids that enhance conversational speech or filter out ambient noise in a crowded bar. The gadgets illustrate how an effort to redesign conventional deaf assistants might lead to a range of new products for unimpaired consumers increasingly accustomed to wearing iPod earbuds and Bluetooth headsets.

“Social noise has tripled since the 1980s and most people struggle on a regular basis to have conversations in noisy places,” said Neil Thomas, RNID’s Head of Product Development. “These products demonstrate a massive potential for everyone to control and enhance their hearing.”

One of the exhibits, called surround-sound eyewear, uses four microphones built into a pair of glasses to amplify sound depending on which direction the wearer is facing.

“The result is a type of three-dimensional superhuman hearing similar to that found in certain animals such as coyotes,” said designer Sam Hecht of London’s Industrial Facility. The company harnessed a theory known as “superdirectivity beamforming” to build the specs, projected for release in 2007.

Another concept, the Goldfish, named for its short-term memory, is a set of earphones that would repeat the previous 10 seconds of conversation in case the wearer missed a snippet.

From the same design team, an earphone-linked remote control that can mute sounds coming from whatever it is pointing at could also be just a couple of years away.

Part of the exhibition is dedicated to making hearing aids more attractive. Exhibits include pink plastic flowers and sleek silver surfaces that disguise unsightly implants as elegant jewelry, underlining an effort to turn Europe’s underdeveloped $5 billion hearing aid market into a fashion industry.

“The hearing aid industry has been led by engineering rather than design,” said design writer and exhibition curator Henrietta Thompson. She has been 70 percent deaf since childhood but was put off from wearing aids because of their stigma until she was 14.

“It’s only really recently that personal electronics and gadgets like phones and MP3 players have become mainstream. We think the time is now right for manufacturers to sit up and take notice of a sleeping giant of an industry.”

Just 1.4 million of the 6 million hearing-impaired Britons who require a hearing aid actually wear the devices, according to the RNID. Thompson said hearing-impaired people take an average of 10 years to pluck up the courage to wear unattractive implants.

Some of the concepts on display at HearWear, which opened last week and runs until March 5, have already attracted interest from manufacturers, Thompson added.

“Today, every second person seems to be listening to music on an iPod, chatting on a mobile phone or scribbling on a PDA,” she said. “What if you could really control and play with the way you hear? There are so many possibilities.”

‘s Universal Hear-ring is a high-design core that houses a mobile handsfree kit, wireless MP3 headphones, or digital hearing aids. The concept is customizable to suit mood, in the same way that mobile phones can be personalized using different clip-on covers. COURTESY OF V&A

, trendy badges that transmit speech to directly to a friend’s close-range hearing aid, overriding surrounding noises. COURTESY OF JOCHEN BRAUN

, the Decibel, tones down disruptive noise from the likes of tube trains so wearers don’t have to turn their MP3 players up to ear-splitting levels just to hear their favourite track. COURTESY OF RNID

are a set of cans that provide insulation from exterior noises and receive input from a Bluetooth badge that can be pinned on conversation partners. COURTESY OF NICOLAS ROOPE

Surround Sound Eyewear from Industrial Facility uses microphones on the side of spectacles to detect the direction of noise and amplify according to line of sight. COURTESY OF RNID

Exhibits at HearWear blend the boundary between jewelry and hearing aids to break a stigma that prevents many from hearing as well as they could. COURTESY OF RNID