An Australian company has completed a trifecta of tools to help Australians take care of their own hearing without the stress and expense of audiology visits. It's the product of decades of government-backed research.
• In 2011 Peter Blamey and Elaine Saunders used bionic ear sound processing to create a high quality hearing aid you could buy online for less than $1,500.
• In 2013, they created a revolutionary hearing test you can take online for free.
• Today they release incus, the -audiologist in your pocket': a device that allows you to program your hearing aid at the pub, at a concert or in the office using your smartphone.
'Four million Australians would have their quality of life transformed if they got their hearing back. We can't repair the damage caused by portable music, machinery, tractors, and rock concerts. But we can empower you to take control of your hearing and rediscover the conversations you're missing," says Elaine Saunders, co-inventor of the system and co-founder of Blamey Saunders hears, a Melbourne-based hearing business.
'When we lose our hearing we feel threatened, insecure, alienated. But we don't do anything about it because getting a hearing aid is often seen as being for the elderly," she says.
'Modern hearing aids are almost invisible in daily use. Now we're removing as many as the other barriers as possible such as cost, usability and accessibility," says co-inventor Professor Peter Blamey.
'Now you can test your own hearing online, buy your hearing aid online, and adjust it yourself, the way you want it, for the different environments in your life," he says.
The IHearYou hearing system is built on decades of hearing research supported by the Australian and Victorian governments initially on for the bionic ear then via the Hearing CRC and now through Commercialisation Australia and the Victorian government's technology vouchers.
The IHearYou system comprises:
a free speech perception test that replaces the seventy year-old tones test,
a range of hearing aids sold online and delivered to match your online test results for a third of the price of competing systems – less than $1,500,
and the Incus – a pocket-sized device that uses Bluetooth and your smartphone to enable you to readjust your hearing aids to comfortable levels for any environment – from a concert, to a family dinner or a trip to the library.
The Incus device was designed to be minimalist in design to appeal to younger users – though the major benefit is its transportability. It can be carried like a -personal audiologist' in your pocket. The system also 'future-proofs' hearing aids, allowing you to re-tune as your hearing changes, and is a template that could save the health system millions of dollars. It was developed in partnership with designer Leah Heiss, product developer Planet Innovation, and made in Dandenong by SRX Global.
How the system works
You can test your hearing at home using the Blamey Saunders hearing test for free online. The test, launched in 2013, uses real words – not tones, which hearing tests for the last 70 years have used.
The test was made freely-available to the public because Elaine and Peter believe that the traditional test has become a barrier to the four million Australians who would benefit from a hearing aid but do nothing about it.
You then obtain an immediate, easy-to-understand interpretation of the results. If you need a hearing aid Blamey Saunders can post you one within days.
Blamey Saunders hears Incus launch
The hearing aids arrive adjusted according to the results of the at-home test, and they require only minimal further tuning. This can be done either at home or with the help of an audiologist.
The hearing aids connect via cords to the Incus, which then communicates via blue-tooth with a smartphone. The user can then adjust their hearing to suit noise levels changes for whichever environment they're in, and save the settings if they're going to be in similar surrounds in future.
The IHearYou software has been packaged into a free app available for smartphones, and allows easy adjustment (in conjunction with the Incus) of the hearing aids, with sliding bars on the phone's screen.
What's new today?
Blamey Saunders already had a system for personal adjustment, which allowed users to create different settings to switch between. But to create on-the-spot settings for each new environment, users would previously have had to carry a programming box and lap top computer, or visit an audiologist to have their aids adjusted. They would then use a magnetic wand to change between different settings – hardly inconspicuous at the pub. All this can now be done using the Incus and a mobile phone: it provides the last link in creating an entirely remote service.
IHearYou is available for Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android, with a Mac version in progress.
The incus completes the IHearYou system. Elaine and Peter believe the system will help lower the unsustainable cost of hearing loss to Australia: an estimated $22 billion in direct and indirect costs. This is not to mention the effect on quality of life that hearing loss can have. When hearing loss is left untreated for too long, the brain adjusts, making it difficult to correct for, making addressing the issue critically important.
The new device is aptly named: the -incus' is a key linking bone in the middle-ear, with the difficult job of translating incoming vibrations from air (sounds) into waves in the fluid of the inner ear. In this sense, the incus is symbolic of its namesake – by linking the inner and outer worlds of the wearer. It is supplied with the hearing aids as a complete package.
It was developed in partnership with Planet Innovation (http://planetinnovation.com.au/) with design by Leah Heiss, a medical device jewellery designer. The design is an important element – with an aesthetic that aims to reduce stigma around hearing loss.
'It's the synergy between art and science," Elaine says.
The incus was one of only two Australian pieces displayed at The Future is Here exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
It is manufactured in Dandenong, Victoria, by SRX Global (www.srxglobal.com).
These inventions have resulted from the founders' original work on the bionic ear with Graham Clark at the Bionics Institute, including development of Adaptive Dynamic Range Optimisation (ADRO) technology. ADRO ensures the important sound frequencies are at comfortable levels, and is now used in Bluetooth headsets, mobile phones and all Australian cochlear implants.
ADRO was utilised by Blamey Saunders Hears in developing their new hearing aid in 2011. The ADRO processor analyses the whole spectrum of sound in 32 narrow bands and, using computer fuzzy logic, adjusts each one to keep sound frequencies within the chosen range of comfort"neither too soft nor too loud. This differs from conventional hearing aids which compress a wide range of input sounds into a narrower range of hearing.
The Blamey Saunders hearing aids also bring four other technologies into play. Blamey Saunders uses a patented technology that provides the shortest delay in the amplified sound of any device in the industry.
-Multichannel-noise suppression technology' improves sound quality without affecting must-hear sounds such as speech. The hearing aids also silence the whistling sounds associated with feedback and include an adaptive directional microphone that automatically amplifies the sounds towards which the head is turned.
A Commercialisation Australia grant went towards the design of software and of the Incus, and a Victorian Government Technology Voucher made it possible for Blamey Saunders Hears to develop the self-fit IHearYou system to use with the Incus on smartphones or tablets.
The overall system has also received funding from: AusIndustry, GBS Ventures (previously Rothschild Biosciences), Four Hats Capital (previously Nanyang Ventures), and Intrason.
The underlying science was supported by the Australian government. Details below.
After development within the CRC, the first funding for ADRO hearing aids (November 2000) was a $40,000 prize from the Melbourne University Entrepreneurs Challenge
This led to $2 million in Innovation Investment Fund (IIF) Venture Capital funding from Rothschild Biosciences (now GBS Ventures) and Nanyang Ventures (now Four Hats Capital).
In 2003, Dynamic Hearing received a further $3 million of IIF Venture Capital funding from GBS Ventures and Nanyang Ventures.
Mid-2003, Dynamic Hearing received a $750,000 start grant from AusIndustry
2004 it received a further $250,000 from AusIndustry's Biosciences Innovation Fund (BIF).
2005 Dynamic Hearing received a Commercial Ready grant of $1.28 million from AusIndustry.
2011, $50,000 from Victorian Department of Business and Innovation. This was used with RMIT to create a novel hearing aid prototype - not yet commercialised
2012 Commercialisation Australia Grant - $210,000 used to develop Incus, working with local partners Planet Innovation and leading to manufacture in Victoria
2014 Victorian Technology Voucher $250,000 - development of Smart phone and tablet self-fit hearing aid system, to use with Incus, as part of the IHearYou system
Chairman Peter Blamey's inventions are used in hearing aids, cochlear implants and headsets from major international manufacturers. In 2007, he was presented with the American Academy of Audiology's International Award, and in 2012, Peter was awarded the prestigious Clunies Ross Science and Technology Medal for his research and development of hearing aids.
Managing Director Dr. Elaine Saunders is an award-winning businesswoman, audiologist and academic. Her accolades include being awarded Asia's Leading Woman in Healthcare in 2011, the Victorian Pearcey Entrepreneur Award in 2011, and the American Academy of Audiology's Award for Achievement in Industry in 2010. Elaine was awarded the 2012 Melbourne Award for Contribution to Community by an Individual.
Ever since she volunteered at a school for the deaf more than 40 years ago, Elaine Saunders has had a passion for assisting the hearing impaired. She has worked as a hearing researcher and academic, most recently at RMIT University, and can provide as good an overview of the field as anyone in Australia. Despite her position as Managing Director of Blamey & Saunders Hearing, she is more than willing and able to talk from a general, non-commercial perspective.