I’ve reached the age when hearing conversations in crowded bars or restaurants is about as hard as trying to finagle free drinks from bartenders because I can't hear anything.
For me, it’s all one big din. But clearly I'm not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, about one out of three Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 has suffered from some hearing loss. Over the age of 75, the rate jumps to one out of two. In most cases, it’s due to a combination of aging that causes changes in the inner ear and exposure to loud noises during our lives that has damaged sensory hair cells.
But now a California outfit called Soundhawk says it has just the thing for all those people like me: a device that aids hearing without actually being a hearing aid. Instead of allowing a person to just raise or lower the volume of noise around them, this gadget, called Scoop, would apparently offer more nuanced options. Soundhawk's device claims to allow users to create a different sound experience for different environments—for instance, one with more muted background noise in a bar. The earpiece would be controlled by a mobile app; by moving your finger across a smartphone screen, you could adjust the sound levels to hear what you want to hear without being distracted by ambient noise.
The key, says Soundhawk, is the use of algorithms that turn the device into a mini-mixer, one that’s meant to give users much more ability to manipulate what they hear.
The Scoop also comes with a small wireless microphone that can be placed up to 33 feet away from the device, say in front of a television you're watching or a bit closer to that particularly funny person across the table.
The 3.3 centimeter device is essentially a microphone in your ear. Its battery holds a charge for up to eight hours, but Scoop also comes with a portable charging case that can recharge it for as long as 24 hours before needing to plug in again.
The people at Soundhawk are quick to point out that that their device isn’t meant for people with serious hearing problems. In fact, the company’s website clearly states that the Scoop is not a diagnostic or treatment tool, which means it’s not subject to FDA regulation.
But Soundhawk is betting on aging Baby Boomers when Scoop debuts later this summer. The hope is that plenty of people are frustrated enough by their diminished hearing that they’ll spend just under $300 for a device that allows them to be their own personal sound engineers.
The system’s mobile app offers four audio settings: indoor, outdoor, dining and driving. Each can be set to complement a specific user’s hearing abilities, then adjusted to particular situations—at a concert, for instance, you'd want to hear performers far away; while dining, you probably want to listen only to the people seated at your table.
Soundhawk CEO Mike Kisch draws an analogy between his device and getting eyeglasses. Just as an optometrist asks you to compare the effectiveness of different lenses ("is it better like this—or like this?"), the Scoop, he says, is designed to let people find their best sound settings.
To date, the company has raised more than $11 million in venture capital, including $5.5 million in a second round of funding it announced last week. It also said it has reached an agreement with Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer best known in the U.S. for making Apple products. The device can be preordered at a price of $279.
From a business standpoint, the Scoop is ripe with potential. But ultimately its success or failure will come down to whether people who can still hear most of the time will be willing to wear a device that could help them hear all the time.
One thing that could help its chances—it will come in nude.
You wear it well
Here’s other recent news about wearable tech designed to help people monitor their health:
· Google will see you now: Last week Google announced a new service called Google Fit, which it says will enable Android users to aggregate all their data from fitness trackers and health apps in one place. In short, all of that information collected by different devices would be pulled together into one app. This comes only a few weeks after Apple rolled out HealthKit, software also designed to be a hub for all of a person’s fitness and health data.
· But it still cannot give you a hug: Ford is looking at ways to have its vehicles respond to data gathered by devices worn by drivers. For instance, according to a recent interview with Ford engineers by ZDNet, if a person’s wearable indicates that he or she is very stressed, the car could send any incoming calls directly to voicemail and it might even switch the music to something particularly soothing.
· Talk about old school: Soon fitness wristbands may be replaced by devices that actually look like wristwatches--and fashionable watches at that. The French company Withings is rolling out the Activité, a stylish wearable with analog instead of digital dials. But don't let that fool you--it tracks steps taken and hours slept.
· Coming soon: Wearable robots: The FDA last week approved marketing of the first motorized device designed to act as an exoskeleton for people with lower body paralysis. Called the ReWalk, it’s worn over the legs and part of the upper body and can help a paralyzed person sit, stand and walk.
· Just breathe: And added to the growing collection of fitness trackers is one called Spire that measures a person’s stress levels and, through a smartphone app, can suggest that he or she take 10 deep breaths. The device, which would be attached to a waistband or bra strap, is expected to be out on the market in September—just in time for people starting to lose their vacation chill.