How Google Glass will Disrupt the Hearing Aid Industry?

Thomas Frey's picture

Hearing aids are for old people. At least that’s what I thought when I was young and invisible attending rock concerts far louder than they should have been.

Even though I still have most of my hearing relatively intact, I’m also part of the aging baby boom generation whose sheer size is already beginning to tax the limits of today’s healthcare systems.

People over the age of 65 typically spend 3-5 times more on healthcare than to people under 65, so unless we figure out ways to radically disrupt this trend, we may all be dealing with some rather dire affordability issues.

As a tiny pebble being dropped into the massive pond of healthcare costs, one of the first truly disruptive technologies for the hearing aid industry may be Google Glass with its conductive-bone audio transmission capabilities.

Three features that give it such disruptive potential are the elimination of an earpiece, the processing capabilities of its onboard microprocessor, and an open API that allows the geeks of the world to develop apps far more ingenious than anything in existence.

Here are a few thoughts on why this tiny sub-category of Google Glass will likely have such a massive impact.

History of the Hearing Aid

After the invention of the transistor in 1948, hearing aids began to shrink

The idea of hearing aids began to take root in the 1700s with the creation of shell-like devices that enabled a person to capture a larger sphere of sound and focus it into their ear. While they never worked very well, this early thinking led to a generation of electronic devices that began to crop up after Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876.

The first electric hearing aid, called the Akouphone, was created by Miller Reese Hutchison in 1898. It used a carbon transmitter, so that the hearing aid could be portable.

Later, Siemens began to commercialize an electronically amplified hearing aid in 1913. The product was bulky, about the size of a “tall cigar box” and not easily portable.

As an industry, hearing aids started to catch on after the development of transistors in 1948 by Bell Laboratories. Over time they’ve become tinier, more fashionable, and with far better audio capabilities.

Population Trends

Our aging baby boomer population in the U.S. (similar in other countries) will dramatically increase demand for health-related products as individuals over the age of 65 typically spend 300-500% more on healthcare than to people under 65

The number of people over 65 is increasing quickly, and so are activity levels. Gone are the days when old people were relegated to a rocker on the front porch to while away their remaining years. Seniors today are very active, and very demanding of solutions to anything that will limit their capabilities.

Pricing Trends

As you can see in the chart above, most of today’s consumer electronics products – cameras, laptops, TVs and even GPS systems – have dropped on average by more than half!

The combination of market competition and low cost manufacturing in the Far East have streamlined production processes and driven prices lower. The only exceptions in the above examples are MP3 players and hearing aids.

MP3s experienced a price jump because its capabilities have advanced exponentially over the past decade going from storing 128MB of data (roughly 12 songs) in 2000 to storing 160G of data (roughly 40,000 songs) or more today.

Hearing aids prices have risen partly because they’re covered by insurance and partly because of sheer demand. It’s an industry well positioned for a radical overhaul.

Enter Google Glass

Google Glass is an attempt to free people from their desktop computers and remove the quirky need to check their portable devices every couple minutes. Glass places all the same information into a viewing surface right in front of your eyes.

Essentially, Google Glass is a camera, display, touchpad, microprocessor, battery and microphone built into spectacle frames. The display is slightly above a person’s normal field of vision but easily viewable.

The viewing surface is the equivalent of looking at a 24-inch display from 8 inches away.

Having and ever-present online display mounted on your head gives rise to a series of obvious uses such as taking, sending, and receiving photos, videos, search, facial recognition, calendar reminders, breaking news flashes, and much more.

But one of the more intriguing thoughts is that Glass will become a close-to-the-brain interface device capable of adding any number of add-ons and attachments.

The current version of Glass features a sunglasses attachment that can easily be coupled to the main rail. In time it will allow normal corrective lenses to be added.

Glass does not have a typical earpiece but instead transmits sound through bone conduction. The use of this kind of non-obtrusive sound amplification creates the possibility for a device used as a hearing aid for those with low-level hearing loss.

Naturally a number of in-ear attachments could also be attached to compensate for whatever kind of hearing loss issues an individual is dealing with.

Creating apps for Google Glass is a far different experience than smartphones

The Hearing Aid App

Google’s approach is unique. Sound is captured by the Glass frame and converted into something “hearable” through bone conduction transfer – vibrating your skull to transmit to your ears.

Since hearing loss comes in a million different shapes and sizes, developing a perfect solution for everyone has been a rather elusive dream.

By placing a device like this in the hands of people outside of current industry thought leaders opens up an entirely new realm of possibilities.

Just adding self-adjusting EQ apps that autocorrect based on the micro-detection of normal human responses could improve our listening abilities a thousand fold.

With the addition of directional devices, we may soon have the bionic ability to zero in on a conversation a mile away, or to listen through walls, or even pick out a quiet conversation happening in a noisy room.

Very likely, a near-term app will give us the ability to see an instant translation of a conversation we’re having in a foreign country in our own native tongue on the Glass display.

Yes, sensory enhancements like this may seem scary at first, and there will be many abuses, but when have we ever been satisfied with living within the confines of our current abilities?

“Just adding self-adjusting EQ apps that autocorrect based on the micro-detection of normal human responses could improve our listening abilities a thousand fold.”


Final Thoughts

As you can see, I’ve focused in on a very tiny aspect of Glass capabilities. Yet the overall impact can be enormous.

Roughly 25% of the U.S. population suffers some level of hearing loss, yet it is a condition that will affect 100% of every population either directly or indirectly at some point in their lives.

The U.S. hearing aid market is a $6 billion industry that has been licking its lips at the prospects for an aging population that will quickly double in size.

However, they never imagined their biggest competitor might soon be Google, a rival few companies want to have enter their space.

But this is just one possibility. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the disruptions Google Glass may bring, or whether you think it could simply fizzle out altogether. Or will Apple or Samsung create a competitive product that is far superior with far better features?

Post your thoughts below.

About the author:

Thomas Frey is the innovation editor of THE FUTURIST magazine. His Web site is


A few ideas

Much like "Zombies, Run!" a gps based running game that submerges you into a post apocalyptic scenario where you are 'runner 5' for the township of able and must go on running missions to retreive supplies, save babies, save other runners, send messages and more, Google glass will enable other interactive games, up to and including special versions of keep away, hide and seek, or for instance a virtual version of the geocahceing games - in geocaching you use the GPS to find and dig up something that another geocacher left, leaving something in return for the next person. With Glass you could create virtual geocaching that someone could use anywhere... perhaps for a running game.

Google Glass

As a hearing healthcare provider, I find this article very interesting.

I would like to however, mention a correction in the article regarding insurance and payment of hearing aids. The article states that "hearing aid prices have risen partly because they are covered by insurance". Insurance does not for the most part cover hearing aids. Patients may have a small benefit such as $500.00 or so, but, that is really minimal, especially when the cost is much more than that. There are many people who have NO insurance benefit and Medicare does not cover hearing aids at all.

Thank you

I totally agree with Karen.

I totally agree with Karen. I'm a doctor of audiology as well and hearing instruments are not covered by Medicare and most insurances do not cover hearing instruments (only a small benefit that does not cover the cost). I feel there is no substitute for a genuinely caring audiologist to fit and dispense the latest hearing instrument technology with real ear measurements to verify the fitting is appropriate. If someone has hearing loss they need to see an audiologist.

Bring it on

I am a hearing aid dispenser in AZ. I say bring it on. There is no way that this can hurt the industry if we adapt to it. People will need help figuring out how to use them and why not sell our services to teach them how. They may not go on YouTube to watch videos but, they might come into your practice and have help. Just think if Glass ever has bluetooth or where the device can repeat what someone said simply by looking a certain direction or our patients could have closed captions everywhere they go. I'm personally excited about this and I can't wait to see where we go in 15 or 20 years.

Have I misunderstood hearing loss due to aging?

With bone conduction of sound - doesn't it still have to be transmitted to the brain by the cochlea and it is mainly damage to the cochlea that aging affects.

Yes there are other causes of hearing loss that bone conduction of sound will overcome but I would have thought it is the minority of cases in an aging population, not the majority.

I am losing my hearing due to aging and have children with hearing loss that they were born with, due to damage to their cochlea.

Thanks for the enlightenment

Hopefully the potential capabilities for hearing really exist with Google Glass. If so, it would be a start to my birthday wish this year. See the request I specifically made to Google about hearing aids:

protected industry

The hearing aid industry is a protected industry. The feds protect the hearing aid industry by declaring hearing aids a medical devices. This keeps prices high and the audies protected from true market competion. If hearing aids were classified as consumer products and not medical devices, you would see devices with more functions and a lower cost.

What I don't understand is

What I don't understand is why insurance companies don't cover hearing aids if the feds have declared them medical devices? Insurance companies generally cover most medical devices as prescribed by physicians. What makes hearing aids any different?

medical device?

Very interesting article, but also would like to make the same correction. Hearing aids are generally NOT covered by insurance companies. The exception to this is for government employees.

I can validate this is true because I have a hearing loss and have worn hearing aids all of my life. When I ask insurance companies why they won't cover hearing aids, I get one of two answers:

1.) Hearing aids are cosmetic
2.) Hearing aids are a convenience

It is pathetic if you ask me.

volume is not my biggest concern...

Having been mostly (about 80 percent) deaf my whole life, I have a hearing aid. However that didn't happen until the 3rd grade or so, well after I trained myself to rely on lip reading and enunciation and thus voice clarity. (many people talk with their mouths mostly closed, obscuring what they're saying)Plus, there is the matter of people needing to be in the room with me. Even with a clear voice, I often still need to see peoples faces.

Unless bone conduction drastically increases sound clarity, my interest in this technology is for the closed captioning possibilities. Of course, sound clarity is key to this too. Can this technology convert words to text that I cannot decipher myself as audio due to my hearing loss?

Might Work for Mild Losses

This idea might work for mild hearing losses as well as those devices (personal sound amplifier) you can buy at Wal-Mart, but for moderate to severe losses, a traditional hearing aid fit by a professional will be needed. Also, eyeglass hearing aids were in vogue at one time, but fell out of fashion because there are many situations where you might not want to wear your glasses, but might still want to wear your hearing aids. Or if your glasses break, then you cannot wear your hearing aids.

As others have pointed out, hearing aid prices have not risen because of insurance and increasing demand. Most insurances do not cover hearing aids, if they do, only in part. Medicare does not cover hearing aids. Also, market penetration is only around 25% in the United States. Only about 1 in 4 people who could benefit from hearing aids actually get them. The market is also inelastic - meaning that lowering the price does increase market penetration. Even in countries where hearing aids are given away for free by the government, marketing penetration is less than 40%.

The high price of hearing aids is reflective of a low volume, inelastic market, a high cost of goods sold, and the fact that many professionals bundle their pricing - meaning that the price includes testing, fitting, follow up, batteries, accessories, cerumen management, etc.

Nonetheless, I embrace any company that is willing to put its technology and resources in the hearing business. iPhone compatible hearing aids have already opened a new realm of possibilities such as geotagged hearing aid settings.

Why Hearing Aids Don't Get Cheaper

My experience with buying a hearing aid is that as all our ears differ, and so do the reasons for a hearing problem, the main cost is not the hardware at all. These tiny devices all need setting up and adjusting to give just the right output to compensate for the spectrum notes which we are unable to hear. They need special equipment to make these adjustments and a trained technician to sit with the hearing aid buyer to set them up. Of course they are expensive, and get more so because they progressively get better at the job but need more setting up to get the benefit. The cost of labor from a skilled hearing-aid technician has not become cheaper, so how can the aids themselves significantly drop in price?

hearing aids with glasses

In the interim until this new technology becomes commonplace, I would like to see a manufacturer offer a product to attach a removable BTE hearing aid on the spectacle arm of a pair of glasses. Also the hearing aid should be adjustable using an app from a smart phone(I believe this product might already be on the market as part of the wireless revolution)