Electronic hearing aids have been in use for more than a century, yet in all of the contemporary buzz about wearable devices hearing aids have been conspicuously absent. My personal experience using the new Starkey Halo i110 made for iPhone hearing aids over the past two months has convinced me that this is a technology that will gain very wide adoption over the coming decade. Beyond being able to adjust the devices from an app on my iPhone, which is convenient for the most part, I can stream the incoming audio from phone calls or music from iTunes or even responses from Siri right to my ears. Although there are many headphones that allow you to take phone calls through a built-in mic, it’s polite to take them off when you are talking to a physical person in front of you. Not so with hearing aids. It is an interesting reversal, but in an age where we are listening to remote audio for hours a day, wearing hearing aids is actually a convenience !
First, let me discuss the obvious reasons why these mission-critical wearables are not all over TechCrunch and Mashable . Number one: there has always been a stigma attached to hearing loss. If you don’t understand what someone else is saying, you could be deaf or stupid and likely, dread of dreads, old . Which brings us to number two: most people who wear hearing aids are older. So admitting that part of your hearing range is shot is tantamount to admitting that a significant part of your life is over. And, number three: hearing aids have been fabulously expensive—along the lines of a high-end computer (or now, two!)
Next, let’s burst some of these bubbles. I have worn hearing aids for the past couple of years. I have also worn eyeglasses almost my entire life. I gotta tell you, they are much alike. (Starkey, the maker of the Halo, also make a very minimalist aid, not controllable by iPhone, called the SoundLens.) Before I got them I had spent a few years missing parts of conversations and filling in the missing details through inference. The lapses of understanding—the incorrect inferences—were mostly in the personal sphere. Within business communication, conversations are usually specifically scoped so that your vocabulary of inference is somewhat limited. But in my busy household of five, context varies moment to moment and I found I was missing the beat more times than I wanted to admit.
As far as age is concerned, yes, older people wear the majority of hearing aids, and I am on the young side of that cohort. Currently, 15% of the U.S. population is 65 or older (50 million people) and 26% are classified as Boomers (80 million people between 50 and 68). Removing the overlap, that’s a primary market, in the U.S. only, of 118 million people. That’s a lot of wearables! But there are many younger people walking around with hearing loss as well (see below for more stats on market sizing.)