New Tech Makes Hearing Aids Work Better in Crowds

Couple having difficulty hearing in noisy restaurant.

Crowds have always been a problem. Whether it’s sporting events, large corporate meetings, or the weekly happy hour at the trendy new restaurant, your ears just have a hard time coping with overlapping voices. And that’s especially true when the ambiance takes on a life of its own, thanks to loud music or enthusiastic sports fans.

When you suffer from hearing loss, these noisy rooms can become an even bigger challenge. While hearing aids help, depending on where you are you might still have trouble picking out individual voices among the cacophony.

At least, until now. New technology is being developed that promises to help hearing aids perform better in crowds, improving your ability to listen to individuals and follow conversations. And when that happens, you can start enjoying those happy hours again.

Sophisticated Intelligence

This new technology is designed to mimic processes that already happen in your brain. When your hearing is functioning well, your brain is pretty good at separating voices from background noise. Using every piece of sensory input at its disposal, your brain can differentiate between different speakers around your table. When Janet is talking your brain amplifies her words. When Ted is talking, your brain makes sure to emphasize what he says.

That makes Janet and Ted easier to hear in a crowd. As your hearing wanes, your brain doesn’t have as much data, so your ability to focus on individual voices diminishes. Hearing aids help, of course. But many hearing aids are calibrated on the basis of wavelength. This technology gives you another input to refine those results.

It Starts With Reading Lips

The technology is among the first in a new line of artificial intelligence-enabled devices that have been shown to successfully address this challenge. And what’s interesting is that the bedrock of this device is one of the earliest known hearing impairment workarounds: lip-reading.

A Smart Camera

Here’s how devices like it work:

  • The primary device is a hand unit with a camera. You point the camera at the person speaking (or you have the camera clipped to your shirt so it already looks at whoever you happen to be looking at–usually the speaker).
  • The device’s camera uses machine learning AI software to read the lips of the individual speaking and determine which words were spoken.
  • The device then reads out what’s been spoken or amplifies the sound of that speaker, sending the signal directly to your hearing aid (or, if you don’t wear hearing aids, to an earpiece paired to the primary device).
  • As the conversation moves along, the device repeats the process, keeping track of whoever is speaking and changing focus if necessary.

There are several built-in benefits to this kind of technology. First, it doesn’t depend on wi-fi or an internet connection. That’s because the device is using sophisticated AI algorithms to determine what’s being said (and not an online database). Second, the device is rather inconspicuous. Unless someone happens to be quite observant, no one will even know that you’re carrying or using it.

If you’re already using hearing aids, crowd assistance devices are designed to connect wirelessly via Bluetooth. As long as your current hearing aids are Bluetooth-enabled (and most up-to-date devices are), you’ll be able to use something like this.

Not the Only Solution to Noisy Rooms

To be sure, modern hearing aids are incorporating more and more technologies designed to make hearing in crowded rooms easier. This latest innovation, which uses lip reading and machine learning to great effect, could easily find itself deployed in any number of ways–in use with hearing aids, or added to a newer version.

Until this technology becomes more widespread, however, many in the hard of hearing community have developed workarounds for noisy crowds. For example, there are many apps that function as reviews for the noise level of restaurants, so anyone with trouble hearing can make quieter dinner plans with the click of a button.

But the easier it is to hear in a crowd–assisted by technology or not–the more joy you’re likely to experience. That’s why this new class of innovative devices is excellent news for anyone looking to check out a trendy new restaurant with friends or enjoy the big game at a local sports bar.

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