Could the latest advanced audio processor chips also be poised to unleash an incredibly disruptive technology, destined to ultimately change the entire hearing aid distribution chain?
In order to follow the nature of the challenges being faced by today’s hearing aid manufacturers, as they deal with some of the most innovative audio equipment ever imagined, you need to understand just how far from what we’ve traditionally thought of as a hearing aid, today’s equipment has come.
Traditionally a hearing aid was a simple amplifier, of sounds. It had a microphone, an amplifier circuit of some type, a battery power source, and a speaker, or what we refer to as a receiver system, that delivered the amplified sound to the ear of the user.
By FDA designation, a hearing aid is a device used to correct a hearing loss. As a hearing loss has been designated as a serious health condition requiring medical intervention, hearing aids have been classified as medical devices, and regulated as such.
Yet the invisible hand of the markets created a demand for devices that while looking identical, using the same components, and even being manufactured by the same companies could be classified as something else entirely, based upon the purpose, or function for which they are sold.
An example would be the Shooter’s ear, which clearly looks like a hearing aid, works like a hearing aid, fits like a hearing aid, is made using hearing aid components. and yet is not sold to correct a hearing loss, but rather to protect its wearer from the loud impact sound associated with shooting.
While the system can clearly be used as a hearing aid, by not being sold as such, it totally skirts those regulations, and restrictions associated with selling hearing aids.
This was recognised in 2009 by the FDA when they established the classification for such product as being that of personal sound amplification products, which could be sold outside of the regulatory framework established to deal with hearing aids.
What does this have to do with the current state of hearing aid development?
Well from a distribution chain perspective everything.
In the interim the industry has developed these incredible new devices capable of far, far more than simply amplifying sounds. All of the top end chips in use today, and being developed in the future also have ultra low drain, digital radio transceivers piggybacked right onto their primary processors. This allows these devices to communicate and interact with any other devices within their range in any number of ways that go far beyond the definition of a hearing aid.
The functional capabilities of all top end offerings, from every hearing aid manufacture today, more closely reflect those of a smart phone, than what we tradidionally think of as a hearing aid.
But, along with this incredible potential also comes the challenge of how to control all this potential power?
Who gets to control what this gear does?
How does the industry begin to separate the hearing aid functions from the equipment itself?
Doing so would free everyone to sell the gear anywhere to anyone, in any way they can think of. Yet in doing so, would totally disrup the established distribution chain and economic model the entire industry has traditionally relied on and operates under today.
So the potential for incredible growth that would be available by separating the function from the gear, has the Boards of all the major manufactures scratching their proverbial heads.
How can they tap the power they've created, without upsetting every apple cart in the market in the process?.
How can they introduce such a disruptive technology, regardless the potential for market growth, without making the established dispensers, doctors and audiologists highly irregular, or down right hateful toward them in the process?
So while Sonova and Widex are working the bugs out of the back end gear that will allow them to track, and control the level of programming being delivered to the consumer, and charge in a menu, or ala carte format, they are also scratching their heads over how to make money under this new model.
All hearing aid manufacturers have always sold pre programmed levels of technology, burned in at the factory before shipping their gear, or that inherent in the function of the chip and receiver set, as a legacy from the industry's past and it's past business model.
The entire industry developed all their business operations around this model, and while working traditionally, it breaks down, when the functions, degree of sophistication and relative value of their gear is sold as software loads, after the gear leaves their facility, or they loose control completely, should their programing and therfore relative value be determined after shipping.
Losing control over these program loads, and who can load what, where, to the gear we think of as a hearing aid, offers not only the greatest potential for market growth, but also the greatest risk of loosing all of the associated demons that loss of control brings to the entire business model evolved by the hearing aid industry since its inception.
What happens when the manufacturers lose control of the programming load, and therefore the functions of the gear they sell?
If, this isn’t the the question being asked, and pondered by all the leading manufacturers as the markets continue to evolve, it should be.
The industry’s delivery system, as well as the products it offers will either evolve, or be passed by as antiquated, and irrelevant. The nature of the products we handle on a day to day basis have evolved into something we as an industry are still trying to get our collective heads around.
The points and places of purchase available to today’s consumer have evolved along with the Internet, to allow for them to completely go around the established delivery chain.
As the equipment continues to evolve its communicative capabilities, the means of controlling and programing them will evolve as well. Last year, I personally saw gear being tested and demonstrated at Siemens headquarters in New Jersey, that they were controlling with a Zoom tablet.
Given the way that open source software has evolved to drive the Android operating system developed by Google and the way that Apple has opened the software of its Iphone to developers, can open source hearing aid software be far behind?
How long before there are sites offering software to consumers that allows them to ‘hack’ their hearing aids, and program them as they wish?
Or, will the manufacturers get their collective acts together, and begin to offer more control through their own open platform programs, ceding program load to local control, or downloadable application purchases?
Only time will tell. But, some things are certain; markets will continue to exert an invisible hand, even in our industry. Technology will continue to evolve, at a pace closly tracking Moore's Law, even as it has already evolved from a sustaining to a disruptive technology, before our collective eyes.
How will our industry react?
Well, there is an old saying that goes something like this, "Only a wet, or messy infant looks forward to change."
Yet change remains our only constant.