The Future of Hearing Correction

Coming Soon

Coming Soon

It’s interesting to think through the parallels between vision and hearing correction over the years. First you had eye glasses, which could correct the shortcomings in vision, but through an outwardly visible prosthesis you wore over your ears and nose. Over time, the glasses got smaller and the corrective powers grew larger.

Then came contact lenses, which were equally effective, but completely invisible to the outside world. No one need ever know.

Finally came LASIK, which could physically correct the shape of your eye. In a sense you are “fixing your body”.

If you think about it, hearing correction is following a similar progression. First you had hearing aids, the “eye glasses” of the hearing world. They amplify sound and are worn in an external prosthesis that sits over the ear. Over time the aids have gotten smaller and more powerful, with recent models even fitting entirely within the ear!


In the Ear Hearing Aid

Then came Cochlear Implants, which could actually bypass damaged hearing nerves to provide a wider range of correction. Not directly analogous to eye glasses since they do more then amplify sound, but from an outward perspective they are still bulky and noticeable:

processor on ear

Cochlear Implants of Today

To me there are 2 logical next steps remaining in this progression: first, an entirely “invisible” corrective hearing mechanism, similar to contact lenses. And finally an actual physical “correction” to the body, similar to LASIK.

In terms of the first, research has already been underway on a “completely internal cochlear implant” for some time. As far back as 2000, a company called Epic Biosonics was working on a device that would be

“fully implanted into the middle ear….a microphone is implanted under the skin in the ear canal. This picks up sound and sends it to a speech-processing device which is similarly implanted under the skin behind the ear. “

(Totally Implantable Cochlear Implant History). In other words, an implant that is outwardly completely invisible!

This sounds fantastic until you read down further that “Epic ran into a particularly difficult technical hurdle and had to shelve the development of this exciting implant.” Epic was later acquired by Med-El (first discussed in my post on Big Business), which to my knowledge offers no such device currently.

In 2011 another company called Otologics was attempting the same feat, but then was later acquired by another CI vendor called Cochlear in what looks to be a bargain basement bankruptcy offering. Clearly there are some challenges still remaining with this technology, but the optimist in me feels it is only a matter of time before we figure those out.

Of course the true correction, the “LASIK” of the hearing world is further out still. There are really two aspects to this: better amplification of sound (glasses/contacts/lasik), and providing sound where there was none before (Cochlear Implants). In terms for the former, hearing loss is trailing vision loss, but in terms of the latter, hearing loss seems further ahead.

As little as I know about hearing loss, I know even less about blindness, despite being extremely nearsighted myself. I pray I do not need to become an expert on that topic, but nevertheless remain a constant technology optimist.

Progress marches on…

4 thoughts on “The Future of Hearing Correction

  1. Scot Wingo

    What was the technology challenge that Epic Biosonics encountered? It seems like if I can run spotify on my phone over 3G and have it bluetooth to my car, that modern technologies like those should be able to allow an embeddable device to communicate with an external speaker with enough quality/bandwidth that it shouldn’t be an issue. The embeddable device’s battery life could be tough though. NCSU has some nanotechnology that draws power from body heat that they are using in some biomedical devices that seems like an interesting path to solve that problem (vs. an external port). Also, there are non-contact chargers that use magnets that I think are popular in other embedded devices.

    1. Mark Isham Post author

      Scot I was wondering the same thing and had trouble finding any more information. Very mysterious. I agree its likely battery life. Since its surgically implanted its not like you can easily recharge, you need something that will last years and years, yet be really small. The other possibility is they just couldn’t get the processor size down small enough to implant effectively. (the external processors are still a bit too large to implant internally, but shrinking fast).

      It’s interesting that Med-EL and Cochlear seem to be in a patent grab here, though. Maybe they’re still in stealth mode right now.

  2. Eliza

    I’m glad there are 3 companies competing against one another in the CI industry. It seems like that forces companies to try harder and faster to become the best.

  3. hearingaidnews

    William Demant Holding Co, which owns Oticon, recently purchased a CI maker from France. Neurelec currently is not in the US, but will be likely coming over in a few years. It is great that these companies will be sharing technology between CI and hearing aids.

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