The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies 466 million people worldwide with disabling levels of hearing loss and forecasts this will rise to over 900 individuals by 2050. Applying ingenuity to help overcome the barriers of prohibitive ASPs, plus the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids, hearables are viewed as a positive opportunity to expand the base of users, even though market cannibalization of adjacent products and lower ASPs are unavoidable. Amazon’s anticipated entry into hearables, reportedly with a similar product to Apple’s Airpods, lends further credibility to a market that presents serious potential.
Six companies account for 90% of the worldwide market for hearing aids today: these are certified devices that are sold directly through medical channels accompanied by lifetime support from hearing professionals and audiologists. Meanwhile, another category known as “personal sound amplification products” (PSAPs) are sold primarily to enhance listening during recreational activities. These cannot be marketed as hearing aids but are often considered suitable as a low-cost alternative, providing a sub-$100 product for those who require minor assistance with their hearing, often by amplifying quieter sounds.
Recent deregulation of hearing aids in the USA requires that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) develop a new classification of over-the-counter hearing aids for moderate hearing impairment, plus the associated safety and reliability standards. This slackens the certification requirements, affording opportunity for non-medical-grade hearing enhancement products whilst removing obstacles to further evolution, therefore creating a larger market opportunity for hearables. Several new entrants will be attracted to participate in a deregulated market, increasing competition; this is widely expected to lower the pricing of hearing aids whilst expanding technology innovation across the entire segment.
The small form-factor of hearables coupled with the necessity to integrate several complex technologies presents a formidable engineering challenge for product designers. Advances in system-on-chip (SoCs) targeting hearables will no doubt tighten the integration of sensors and processing engines, whilst simultaneously reducing power consumption, presenting a package of essential technologies on a single piece of silicon.
Battery life is an important consideration; there just isn’t the space for high capacity cells in a typical hearable product. Apple’s Airpods established a benchmark for longevity, with up to 5 hours of listening time on a single charge, and a new generation of hearables must meet or exceed this to satisfy consumers. The addition of virtual assistants, edge AI for voice processing and adaptive noise cancellation places further burden on battery technologies; and to a lesser extent, so does packing in additional sensors, such as GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes with a requirement to be operational all the time.
Batteries could be trickle-charged to increase longevity, however techniques such as energy harvesting are not yet under active consideration for hearables, largely due to their restrictive size. That said, the neckband form-factor presents opportunity for kinetic or solar cell charging. Meantime, recent advances in graphene technology are already contributing towards the development of improved batteries, not only expanding capacity and durability but also permitting faster recharge cycles.
A recent innovation from Widex enables hearing aids powered by fuel cell technology, enabling a 20-second recharge for up to 24 hours continuous usage (pictured above). Fuel cell technology is not new but is under continual development. The revolution from Widex is in packaging the unit into a confined space: the fuel cell occupies a volume of just 500mm3, comparable to a medium-sized button cell battery. Alternative strategies come from companies like Ossia and Energous, who are actively developing far-field wireless charging solutions. Ossia announced they secured a license with a global top tier battery manufacturer; this may lead to button cells augmented with wireless charging technology.
Energous wireless charging receivers are packaged into tiny components less than 1.7mm3 in volume, small enough to fit inside an in-the-ear hearing aid. Meanwhile, Futuresource proposes that charging cases could become a target for additional electronics and communications technology, given the advantages of a larger battery and freeing designers from the constraints of the earpiece.
Futuresource’s Hearables Market Report will be published in April 2019 expanding on these market trends.