How Apple’s wireless EarPods could change the way we hear everything

By

Could Apple’s wireless EarPods use hearing aid technology to offer holographic sound, augmented-reality Siri and superhuman hearing?
Could Apple’s wireless EarPods use hearing aid technology to offer holographic sound, augmented-reality Siri and superhuman hearing?
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Recent reports suggest Apple might ship wireless, noise-canceling EarPods with the iPhone 7. From a hardware perspective, these headphones would be very similar to hearing aids.

With the right feature set, these devices could change the way we hear digital audio and pave the way for transformative new audio experiences for everyone.

Are wearable manufacturers digging in the right place?

Now that Google Glass, Apple Watch and various fitness devices have gotten us used to wearables, it’s time for smart audio devices — or “hearables,” as they have become known — to grab our ears. Several such successful Kickstarter projects launched at CES earlier this month, and most aren’t targeting people with hearing loss.

Bragi’s Dash earbuds stream music wirelessly from your iPhone, but they also act as fitness trackers and recognize gestures, like nodding your head to accept a call.

Doppler Labs’ Here promises to bring the benefits of hearing aids to people with normal hearing, by providing a “live listening” experience for Coachella festival attendees. Even Twitter is getting in on the act. And there are many more examples.

With so many smart earbuds already on the market, why should Apple enter the sector now? To coin a phrase Steve Jobs once borrowed from Indiana Jones, I believe most hearable makers are “digging in the wrong place.”

Today’s hearing aids are overpriced and unimpressive

I lost most of my hearing as a result of chemotherapy treatment for cancer back in 2007. It saved my life, but left me relying on hearing aids to engage in a conversation.

I’ve found today’s hearing aids are overpriced and difficult to use. Unlike glasses, which have become a stylish fashion accessory, hearing aids remain clunky and uncool. No wonder only one in five people who could benefit from hearing aids actually wear them. Many people choose to struggle with poor hearing rather than accept the social stigma associated with the devices.

Every time I buy a new pair, I hope it will be “the one” that solves my hearing problems. But even those that claim to be “Made for iPhone” tend to be unreliable for streaming audio and making calls.

If only there were an innovative tech company that specialized in entering new markets with disruptive, revolutionary consumer products that could drag the hearing aid industry into the 21st century …

OK, I admit, these are just regular hearing aids with an Apple logo stuck on them. I’m sure Jonathan Ive and his team would come up with something way better.
OK, I admit, these are just regular hearing aids with an Apple logo stuck on them. I’m sure Jony Ive and his team would come up with something better.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why Apple needs to make hearing aids

The market for hearing aids is not as niche as it might appear: 15 percent of American adults report having trouble hearing. And this problem is set to increase as our population gets older, because aging is a major cause of hearing loss. Forecasts suggest the hearing aid market will be worth more than $8 billion by 2020.

In reality, Apple’s new EarPods will probably not double as hearing aids. But imagine if they did.

Apple’s entry into this sector could disrupt the hearing aid industry and be a godsend for deaf people like me. And the latest technological advances could benefit everyone. The market for Apple hearables is clearly not limited to people with hearing loss. There are three features I believe Apple is uniquely placed to deliver that could make Cupertino’s Smart EarPods a must-have accessory for everyone.

Holographic audio

Stereo has been with us since the 1930s. In headphones, it creates an immersive audio experience, but it is far from natural. For example, if you are listening to music with drums on your left and vocals on your right, when you turn to face in the opposite direction, the drums remain on your left and vocals on your right. In reality, they would have switched to the opposite sides. It is as if the band is actually attached to your head.

Imagine you are standing in the middle of the band. As you turn your head, the unique audio mix of the different instruments around you changes in each ear as you turn. But regular stereo does not come close to matching this experience.

Reproducing this effect requires a recording taken from many different directional microphones. This is known as “holographic audio.” To listen to this kind of recording using headphones, you would need motion sensors attached to your head to pick up your movements and adjust the audio mix accordingly. Holographic sound promises to be the next major leap forward in audio technology.

iPhones already feature CoreMotion, a framework that provides applications with data from a magnetic compass, accelerometer and gyroscope. If Apple were to build CoreMotion into its Smart EarPods, it could quite literally add a new dimension to music.

Augmented-reality Siri

Google Glass was once hyped as the future of wearables, but consumers did not embrace the gadget because of its clunky looks and unintuitive interface. Glass was ahead of its time. But the idea of having a wearable virtual assistant that provides context-aware information while you are on the move is still a good one.

Augmented-reality vision may be a long way off, but the technology for augmented-reality audio exists today. Imagine you are walking down the street when you hear Siri call out on your left, “Hey — that shop you are looking for is over here.” When you turn your head to the left, Siri adds, “Now you’re looking straight at it.”

Smart EarPods equipped with CoreMotion could do this easily, mapping Siri’s voice onto specific locations in the environment around you.

This technique could also be used to mix audio from your iPhone with ambient sound around you. For example, when taking a call while walking, the caller’s voice could be positioned to your right, as if you were walking next to them. If you were seated, the caller could be positioned in front of you, as if you were seated opposite each other.

This would have a significant safety benefit. Regular headphones block your ears, so you can’t hear what is going on around you, whether it’s the hoot of a car horn or the screeching brakes of a bike. By mixing external and internal audio sources in this way, you would be able to hear everything that matters while you are on the move.

In combination with noise-cancellation technology, augmented-reality audio could allow you to let in external sound when you want it, and block it when you don’t.

Superhuman hearing

While only 15 percent of Americans suffer from hearing problems, everyone could benefit from superhuman hearing sometimes. Seinfeld famously ended up wearing a puffy shirt on a TV appearance, thanks to his inability to hear a “low talker.”

Hearing aid technology has come a long way. These days they can eliminate background noises and pick out the voice of a person directly in front of you. Siemens even claims its latest models offer “better than human” hearing. In other words, everyone could benefit from them. Superhuman hearing can help you have a conversation in a noisy environment like a nightclub, without the need for any shouting.

Breaking the mold in hearing aid sales

Hearing aids today can cost as much as $5,000. One of the reasons they are so expensive is because the sales channel is complicated. You buy hearing aids from audiologists, who test your hearing and tune your hearing aids to your specific prescription based on your “pure tone audiogram.”

While there are doubtless many regulatory issues surrounding this, I wonder if Apple could solve the problem with a self-testing app for minor hearing impairments — using an approach like the tests in ResearchKit, Apple’s open-source platform for clinical trials. A similar pragmatic approach allows those with minor vision impairments to buy reading glasses over the counter without a prescription.

I’m hoping Apple will listen

Hearing aids are pretty much the only gadgets I use ever day that are not made by Apple. I guess that is why I get so frustrated by them. They are just not up to Apple’s high standards. Even when I’m wearing them, I still have trouble hearing people.

I realize Apple may have other priorities, like building electric, self-driving cars. But for anyone who could benefit from better, more affordable hearing aids, I hope Apple is listening.

Thanks to Peter O’Shaughnessy from pebble {code} for his input into this article.

Deals of the Day

  • s

    Those hearing aids look like porcelain penises on a string, Just sayin…

    • Duncan Hill

      well that’s what the inside of your ear looks like.

  • Jack Kendall

    This is an area that Apple could easily disrupt, already the iPhone is applauded for it’s incredible Accessibility features, however this addition of always on Hearing Aid ability would be a great way for Apple to continue their Brand dominance, as this would lead to so much free press.

    Most people will have them because of the obvious cool factor of Wireless Earbuds by Apple, but the improvement to that 15% of Americans will be an ongoing Branding story that will help keep Apple’s Brand Bank rich. Also it can’t hurt to have little Apple Logos on everyones head everywhere! Lol

  • Jon G.

    For your sake, I too hope Apple is “listening”… ;)

  • http://treehugger.com Lloyd Alter

    I wear Starkey made for iPhone hearing aids and they stream perfectly and are clear as a bell for the phone, and invaluable for my fitness apps and for google map directions on my bike. Yes, they are expensive but they have changed my life, wired me into my books, my podcasts, my work. Perhaps you should give them another shot.

    • http://www.grahambower.com Graham Bower

      Thanks for the tip. I haven’t tried Starkey. I’ve just bought new Siemens ones though, so I won’t be replacing for a while. Siemens have great sound quality but terrible iPhone support. To be honest I’ve given up on iPhone support now. Sound quality is key.

      • Britt

        Hey Graham! I work a lot with the Starkey Halo product as an Audiologist. Starkey is the leading company in hearing aids made for the iphone. I have always found an underwhelming response to Siemens devices and this is why I have chosen to focus more on products and companies that I can fully support dispensing to my patients. Siemens, as a company, almost recently when bankrupt and was taken over by an existing company due to poor sales but large name brand recognition. Although it may seem like a good idea for apple to make these devices, there is a lot more involved in hearing better. There is a reason these are medical devices that require a license to dispense them. Sure, you can purchase hearing devices online but a device is only as good as it’s programmer. That is a fact!

  • jaffa99

    “Holographic audio”, something no-one had heard of and no-one in interested in. Needs motion sensors & processing power to achieve what over a normal blue-tooth headset?

    I bet when headphones were invented someone said a major advantage was that it sounds like the band is actually attached to your head – so you can move about freely.

    “Augmented reality siri”, again what about existing headsets, earbuds, wired or wireless, these things exist.

    Is this the future of Apple? No wonder the share price is tanking.

  • David Maltsberger

    While I would like to see a seamless hearing aid product for Apple devices, I wear the Widex BTE aids and just added the Com.Dex device that streams iPhone or iPad or other devices directly to the aids. The freedom of having “legit” voices in my head from the phone or Netflix is a great help! Thanks for a great article.

  • Rod M

    Author said “For example, if you are listening to music with drums on your left and vocals on your right, when you turn to face in the opposite direction, the drums remain on your left and vocals on your right.”. Of course the audio position does not change as it was recorded with these instruments on left and right and it should not change. Now who in their right mind moves their head left to right when listening to music and expects the audio to shift with them? People need to lay off the read cordial.

  • Janice Schacter Lintz

    The bigger issue is that the consumer as well as the Hearing Aid Dispenser/Audiologist has no idea what they are purchasing or selling. There needs to be greater transparency in the market.

    See my letter to the President and FDA regarding PCAST’s letter to the President on hearing aids. http://janicelintz.com/2015/12/06/why-the-pcast-recommendations-dont-go-far-enough/ I encourage everyone to contact the FDA to support the letter requiring greater transparency of hearing aids. Consumers deserve the right to be informed.

    Janice S. Lintz

  • bIg hIlL

    Upon encountering this article, sperm proceeded to soil my lower garments. Would I be wrong to send in a cleaning bill?

  • Peter Loring

    As an audiologist who suffered a sudden hearing loss in 2006, the author was either fit incorrectly or wore crap. Hearing aids work MUCH better today then they did even 5-10 years ago. Clunky? Again, product choice? Price?

    I’ve worked as a performing musician and a sound man since the 80’s so my ears have always been important to me.

  • aphoenix444

    I’m sorry to say, but I think this author has some serious misconceptions about what is possible with hearing aids. I am hearing impaired myself as well as a hearing instrument specialist by trade. The problem is that people want hearing loss to be just as easy as treating vision problems, but it’s not. Hearing is the most complex, complicated sense that we have, the only sense that utilizes 100% of our brains. When we wear hearing aids, as I do, we bring sounds up to an audible level. This does not necessarily make them more clear or easy to understand. The reason for this is multi-faceted.

    First of all, most hearing loss is caused by damage to the hair cells that are responsible for translating sound into nerve impulses that are then translated by our brain into speech, music, noise, etc. When there is damage to the hair cells, we can pump the loudest, clearest, most digitally optimized sound into our damaged system, however, our system remains damaged. This means that there will always be an element of distortion in our hearing because our system is damaged. The greatest technology in the world cannot remove that distortion, because we are only augmenting our ability to hear with hearing aids. We are not actually healing the problem that caused the hearing loss.

    Secondly, most people wait to get hearing help for an average of 7 years from the time that they first notice the problem, then they spend a large chunk of money and want to get back to 100%. Unfortunately, this is not possible. The parts of your brain that are responsible for comprehending speech deteriorate when they are not stimulated up to a normal level. Essentially, your brain forgets what to do with that sound information. This is called auditory deprivation. The longer the problem is let go, the less we can get back when you finally do get help. People hear best for the longest period when they get help early, while the loss is still mild, and continue to get help and keep up with adjustments as the loss progresses. Most people do not do this. It is always heartbreaking to me when someone scraping the bottom of the proverbial hearing barrel come in, spend several thousand dollars on hearing aids, and cannot get back to what they feel is an acceptable level because the problem has been allowed to progress for too long before they ever got help.

    Hearing loss, for most, is very gradual and slow, so we are unaware it is happening. The only way to keep tabs on it is to get routine hearing screenings roughly every 1-2 years, which most people do not do. Most people have to be dragged in kicking and screaming by their family members before they ever get a test, and despite seeing very obvious hearing losses in the results continue to insist that they “hear fine.” This is because hearing loss does not usually affect all frequencies at once. It usually affects the high frequencies first, stealing the clarity of speech, while the volume remains plenty loud enough to hear. It just becomes incomprehensible because we’re hearing parts of words, but not the whole word together.

    Also, each hearing loss is unique. Two people with the same exact audiogram (hearing chart), will perceive things very differently and walk out with different settings customized to their individual lives and perceptions by the time I’m done with the fitting process. There’s no one-size-fits-all hearing device that you can just stick in your ear and it will perform miracles. It has to be customized to each unique individual for best results. Even our Apple compatible hearing aid must be customized to each individual, and the controls are based on the master program that is arrived at through a series of adjustments. If an off-the-shelf product was capable of doing that, it’d already be out there and flying off the shelves. There is no shortage of inexpensive PSAPs on the market attempting to do just that, and yet, 80% of the people who need hearing aids still choose not to get them for whatever reason.

    Until such a time as medical science is capable of actually restoring the hair cells in our ears to optimal functioning, hearing aids are helpful, but not perfect. Even the miracles of the Apple integrated hearing aids, which allow an unprecedented level of control over your sound environment, cannot get people back to 100% because the damage in our hearing system still exists. Realistic expectations in dealing with hearing loss are incredibly important, and I’m sorry to say, this author needs to check his expectations.

  • David C’de Baca

    I’m all for Apple hearing aids, I too hope Apple is listening

    • Betty-Jane Galloway

      There has to be a way to Improve today’s technology.

  • Sarah Dawkins

    Your entire paragraph “Today’s hearing aids are overpriced and unimpressive” does nothing to help the individual with hearing loss struggling with the decision to seek help. Your experience is not the same as anyone else’s, and I am sad to think that it might cause people to wait even longer to seek out amplification if they need it.
    Also, the fundamental idea you are perpetuating, that hearing aids should be as easy to make as headphones, is misguided. Audio streaming is done with a single source, a line in, a bluetooth connection. Hearing in the real world is much more complicated than that. Having a conversation with a friend walking next to you on a city street; a busy line at Starbucks with other people behind and in front of you, all talking, while machines buzz in the background; a group of friends riding in a car and you need to hear road directions over the music and laughter. These are difficult situations even for people with normal hearing. There are research labs all over the world devoting their time, money, and efforts into figuring out how to conquer these obstacles and you think the folks at Apple can just build it into the next OS? Maybe they’ll charge $1.99 for the app, that way you know it’s worth it.
    Apple wireless headset for listening to TV? I’m all over that, it would be a great product. Apple hearing aids? No thank you.

    • sanfordandsons

      You obviously never had a hearing problem. believe me, any company that is willing to make a device that helps us who have hearing issues and is willing to make them at a price point that most people can afford WITHOUT INSURANCE would be a God send for us.

  • Duncan Hill

    There is quite a lot of additional techology in hearing aids though; ear buds are basically just transmitting sound from a device into the ear, whereas hearing aids take sound in from microphones and do an awful lot of processing on different channels before sending that sound through to the ear. With mine, even without using any transmission, the batteries last for about a week and when I use the bluetooth, the life is significantly shortened. It would be great if someone like Apple did get involved in this, since they could introduce a whole bunch of new stuff (wireless charging would be awesome!) but I am not convinced that they will encroach that far into the hearing aid market,

    • Betty-Jane Galloway

      How can I get the rest of the comments that originally appeared? Please!

  • jay

    oh man there will be no bluetooth headset. headset with lighting port. thats it. to remove the headphone jack there is only one reason and that is money.

  • Dave

    In a little offended by this article. As a heating systems consultant it is my job to make sure the right fit for hearing loss, which differs depending on the loss. A lot of people don’t even notice those around them wearing hearing aids. They are not big a clunky, those are the old ones that you see. this article is late, this technology is already being used, and you would be very surprised how well people with hearing loss can hear. “Better than normal” is possible with people with a loss. The technology available destroys this article.

    • CarScott

      “Better the normal ” is just silly. You’ll never hear a hearing impaired person say that their hearing aids return their hearing to better than normal. Technology has improved noticeably n 10 years but as long as you’re stimulating a damaged auditory system you’ll never achieve even equal to normal hearing.

  • GaelicSoxFan

    Anyone else thinking of the Cybermen from Doctor Who?

  • Edmond

    Realizing that hearing aids are high tech medical devices which need a prescribed adjustment is a very real concept. Also realizing that your hearing loss due to chemo has likely damaged your ability to hear properly. Hearing aids do not work like glasses. Hearing loss is the equivalent to macular degeneration of the eyes. No amount of correction will result in perfection. This is the brutal honest fact of hearing loss.

  • Null Static Void

    looks like the no earphone jack iphone may be a reality.
    Earth to Tim. We are not bound to Apple by unbreakable chains.
    This would actually be annoying enough to me that I’d either stick with older models that have earphone jacks (if they are available) or jump to a Samsung.
    No exaggeration.

  • The Atheist Libertarian

    http://www.bragi.com

    apple should buy these guys

  • Raymond

    Now that would be a great new product from Apple! I don’t think the current earbuds are comfortable to wear at all. And…who really wants a big Bluetooth headset hanging off the side of their head?

  • Mystakill

    While I have absolutely no objections to Apple furthering technology to improve hearing aids, and wireless audio in general, I sincerely hope that they don’t remove the 3.5mm audio jack. I’ve tried multiple stereo Bluetooth headsets, and the audio quality and connectivity was fairly sketchy across the board. Since they use the already-overcrowded 2.4GHz frequency range, interference from Wi-Fi routers, devices, and microwaves is common and unavoidable.

    I have several nice headsets from Ultimate Ears, Shure, and Altec Lansing that I use on my mobile devices, laptops, and gaming controllers. Having to use a bulky and expensive adapter Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter on Apple devices would be far from ideal. I’ve already lived through that with early cell phones which had proprietary connector-to-3.5mm adapters. It was far from ideal, and anybody else who went through that period is dreading this likely change as well.

  • sanfordandsons

    I have behind the ear hearing aids that cost $3500 and will only last 3-5 years before they have to be replaced. either from wearing out or from hearing aid miniaturization. The companies who make these instruments only give the user two year warranty to boot. In my opinion there is a huge market demand out there since many people who wear aids are baby boomers who are up on technology and use cell phones. The aid that I wear is Oticon’s that offer a BlueTooth device called a Streamer that combines both the phone and the aids. it runs on 12/s hearing aid batteries and will last up to a week using the BT system. The Streamer also needs to be charged, but will last for two days. It is not a cumbersome system, but it will set you back nearly $4000 for the external aids or $2800 for the internal aids. Apple would open up a new hearing experience if they made aids. Most Vietnam vets such as myself shot their weapons without hearing protection. I shot at least 500 rounds of 45 ACP, M14 and M1 Garand during my training, not to mention several hand grenades. Rather than go to the VA and enter that system which YOU would pay for, I am willing to toe my own bill and buy what I like rather than have the VA decide which aid I should use.