H is for hearable


This post is part of a continuing series, “Digital: from A to Z,” that explores what it means to be “digital” from A to Z, broken down into individual blog posts diving deeper into various subjects. Check back regularly to see continuing posts as I work my way through the alphabet and let me know: What’s in your A to Z of digital? You can find me on twitter @Max_Hemingway or leave a comment below.

A Hearable is a device that enhances or adapts our hearing. The most common developments in this area are hearing aids to help with hearing and headphones.

Hearing aids have come a long way from being a large unit, sometimes carried on straps around the body, to small devices that fit around the back of the ear. There have also been developments that implants have used to enhance these devices, helping the user to hear sounds. Headphones have also used these developments, with Bluetooth earpieces that allow the user to listen and talk as an extension to a mobile phone.

Bone-conducting devices allow a device to be placed next to the ear and sound to be heard by sending sound from transducers to the inner ear through the skull. This technology allows the user to hear a conversation or sounds through the transducers whilst still being able to hear the surrounding environment. Such devices are popular with runners, as they can hear traffic when crossing the road whilst listening to a podcast or music.

Devices are being developed to provide layering to the sounds, to allow the filtering out of some sounds and allowing others in. You can purchase noise- canceling headphones today that filter out all of the background noise; however, some of this we may still need to hear.

Going the other way, personal sound amplifiers are also available on the market for boosting sounds. Working in a similar way to a hearing aid, a search and rescue team uses them, for example, to listen for small, faint sounds of someone trapped under rubble in a building collapse. Shrinking these devices and placing one in every team’s ears increases the chances of someone being found in this scenario.

Language translation is another growing area in hearables. The Babel Fish, first introduced in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, has spurred a range of companies to design a 21st century digital version in the form of a hearable that can translate languages.

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.” (Source: http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Babel_Fish) 

We are not walking round with small, yellow, leech-like fish in our ears; however, we are using the next best thing — the earbud. Language translators and headphones are being modeled around this concept, providing a compact device that can fit inside your ear with enough charge to keep it running for a few hours, recharging when placed back into its carrying case.

The next level of hearables will probably take the form of thin tattoo electronics that could be placed on the skin around the ear and provide bone conduction though small. Hand Phone anyone? (“Total Recall,” 2012) Just place it against a solid surface…

Join me next time as I look at ‘I is for IoT’ in my Digital A-Z series.  See my last post, G is for geolocation.

This entry was originally posted in Max’s blog.

Max Hemingway is a senior architect for DXC in the United Kingdom. With more than 25 years of experience, he has a broad and deep range of technical knowledge and is able to translate business needs into IT-based solutions. Currently the chief architect of the BAE Systems account in the UK, Max has a proven track record acquired through continual client engagement and delivery of leading edge infrastructures, all of which have delivered positive results for end-clients, including IT cost reduction, expansion of service capability and increased revenues.


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