AI hearing aids optimize sound in real time

The hearing aid hardware wars have become a software battleground.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A software update is coming to an ear near you. Whisper, which develops AI-enabled hearing aids, just announced that they've rolled out the first software upgrade to their Whisper Hearing System, AI-powered hearing aids that improve over time.

If you don't need assistive devices for hearing you'd be forgiven for not knowing that the entire category has received a massive tech upgrade in the last few years. Companies like Oticon Opn have developed hearing devices that link up to smart home and can be set to automatically start the coffee maker and turn on lights when put in each morning. Brands like Starkey offer the ability to stream audio from an iPhone directly to the company's hearing aids.

But intelligence and augmentation is the new frontier. As augmented reality crawls out of its hype hole and begins to deliver some interesting use cases, augmented hearing might be the real market story. That's because there's a real need at stake (with apologies to AR). Hearing well isn't just about getting the sound to the brain, but knowing which sounds should be amplified and which de-emphasized, a fantastically complex problem. Brands like Samsung's Harman have invested heavily in augmented hearing capable of isolating conversations in noisy environments, and technologies like machine learning and Deep Neural Networks, which simulate the brain's neural connections to learn without programming, are being applied to hearing assistance technologies to help cut through the dynamic, cluttered noise of natural environments.

Like Oticon Opn, Whisper is going all in on AI. The company launched in 2017 with a team of artificial intelligence, hearing care, hardware, and software experts coming together to solve the challenge of providing better hearing. The company's flagship device debuted in fall 2020.

The new updates include improvements include better performance in speech and sound separation, audio optimization, noise reduction, and quality processing, as well as improvements to the compression system used by audiologists to tailor the device for patients.  

"This upgrade is a major milestone for hearing health," says Andrew Song, Co-Founder and President of Whisper. "We are excited to deliver these improvements to Whisper users and help change people's hearing experience. This upgrade would not have been possible without combining the latest work from our artificial intelligence team with valuable feedback from hearing care professionals."

According to the company, the improvements come as a result of Whisper's processing tens of thousands of hours of audio information collected since launch in October 2020. Notably, the upgrades are free to Whisper customer, who pay on a monthly plan for the device and ongoing care form a local hearing care professional. It's a model familiar in the mobile and personal computing worlds, and its migration to the world of hearing assistance signals a new chapter of competition and software-driven technology development in hearing aids.

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