January 26, 2013

Haptic Hearing Aids... The Next Generation of Hearing Aids?

If you think about it, current hearing aids are essentially just a volume knob to increase the sound volume for those hard of hearing.

However, as any audiophile will tell you, sound amplification alone does not mimic "true" sound quality as perceived in the mind. True sound quality involves not just sound, but also "sensation." That's why people still attend concerts or spend thousands of dollars on audio equipment for home sound systems. It's not just "hearing" the sound, but also "feeling" the sound.

This may sound like a trivial matter, but let's consider gaming... In the past, when manipulating a character within a video game, it required the use of a joystick. However, when using a joystick to make the character shoot a gun versus swinging a sword, it "feels" the same to the gamer. The joystick does not provide any tactile feedback to reflect what is happening in virtual reality.

Enter haptic technology. With haptics, when shooting a gun in a video game, the joystick will actually jump backwards to mimic what actually would happen in reality. When swinging a sword in a video game, the joystick will actually provide resistance to mimic the feel of swinging a sword with its weight and air resistance.

Haptic technology has also made robotic surgery a reality given it is very important for the surgeon to know that when a robotic arm/finger touches a living tissue, the surgeon is able to "feel" whether the tissue is "soft" or "hard" in order to deliver the proper amount of pressure to cut or move human tissue around.

Now consider using haptics within hearing aids. Sound would not only amplify, but also provide tactile sound sensation via bone conduction. Sound should become "alive" and more realistic, just like the difference between using a plain joystick versus one that uses haptics. Furthermore, adding bone conduction to the air conduction essentially adds 2 additional "speakers" for a total of 4 speakers (2 speakers via air conduction and 2 speakers via bone conduction). And more speakers produces more depth and realism to the sound... just like a home movie theater system which can have up to as many as 8+ speakers.

Now does this actually happen?

Well, it so happens there are regular headphones (high-end of course) to be introduced later in 2013 that incorporate haptics and for those who have used it, the experience is utterly magical.

I quote from Forbes journalist Jason Evangelho,
"I was downright giddy. I had the strongest desire to re-experience my entire music library with these headphones. I was hearing and feeling elements of the music I never knew existed..." [link]
When playing a video game with haptic headphones,
 "each cannon barrage was brutal; hearing the rapid fire of an assault rifle was crisp, pronounced, exhilarating. I could literally feel the roar and hum of the engine through both my hands and my ears." [link]
The technology marrying sound with haptics has been introduced by ViviTouch (subsidiary of Bayer) who has dubbed it "ViviTouch 4D Sound."

They have also partnered with Able Planet to create an ITC (in-the-ear) hearing-aid like device for sound delivery using Able Planet's Sound Fit ear piece. Sound Fit itself is an interesting device in that unlike ITC hearing aids which requires molding, Sound Fit literally molds to any ear canal when inserted analogous to memory foam mattresses that conform to any body shape/type when a person lays down. No customization is required. Such a form fitting device in the ear canal is important as it can transmit vibrations to the bone around the ear more effectively.

I feel that if the technology holds up and wows enough people, it will be inevitable that such haptic technology (and even Sound Fit ITC) will soon become incorporated into high-end hearing aids rather than just high-end headphones as they are now.

Of course, I could also be totally wrong...

'Deaf People Will Hear Again:' How ViviTouch and Able Planet's Haptic Technology Will Change The World. Forbes 1/25/13
Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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