Gennum Corporation is meeting the needs of both the hearing and hearing impaired.
For a hearing instrument manufacturer with a 32-year track record of providing devices to the market, it is striking to discover that they see the hearing and hearing impaired as part of the same market base. This is the case with the Gennum Corporation, Burlington, Ontario, Canada.
But after Gora Ganguli, vice president and general manager of the company’s Audio and Wireless Division, explains this sea change, it makes perfect sense. “Our fundamental view is that hearing devices [of all kinds] are converging,” he says. “Look around today—people are wearing a lot of stuff in their ears. What we’re trying to do is enable that convergence.”
This concept is not new. Ganguli points to the convergence of wireless phone and personal organizer (PDA) technology, which allowed for the development of the smartphone devices that pervade the wireless market and customers’ time.
The company is facilitating this convergence first by use of the Bluetooth® chip in combination with digital signal processing (DSP), which allows Gennum’s headset products to have a better signal to noise ratio, and noise reduction. The company’s nXZEN headsets are designed to give a high degree of clarity for cell-phone users; they can be used with MP3 players and one-touch call answering. In addition, like its hearing instruments, Gennum’s headsets are low power devices.
The hearing instrument user, too, is benefiting from the technology convergence. “With the digital signal processing that’s available, why not allow the hearing instrument to directly interface with the television or other devices,” says Ganguli. The only missing ingredient is an ultra low power wireless technology.
Historically, part of the problem was power. A phone headset runs on about 70 mW and a stereo music headset about 250 mw with Bluetooth technology. However, with an internally developed ultra low power wireless technology code named “Falcon,” Gennum will be able to overcome this with new digital wireless hearing devices. The technology, which will be available in the fall, will be able to interface with phones through an intermediary Bluetooth device and to televisions and audio devices directly. “This makes for a more mainstream hearing aid device,” says Ganguli. The Falcon is currently undergoing field testing in the run up to its fall launch.
Besides its ability to interface with a variety of entertainment and communication devices, the Falcon technology has a number of other features, including an RF frequency of 720 MHz to 928 MHz, programmable channel spacing, and MP3-like audio quality. It also features an extended-life 0.95 volts to 1.5 volts battery, and is powered entirely by its hearing aid batteries. For the dispenser, the Falcon has the advantage of wireless fitting.
In addition to the flagship Falcon device, the company manufactures a variety of digital devices: the Advanta, Voyageur, Venture, Foundation Digital, Duet Digital, and Paragon Digital. The company is rapidly phasing out of the analog market.
But convergence is not simply a buzzword or a high-concept promise. It is a necessity given that hearing aid technology has reached its current limit.
Reaching the Limit
But even with reaching the zenith of hearing aid technology, Ganguli says that Gennum has found a new frontier to exploit. “The benefit of low power technology—like ours—is the ability to have two hearing aids work together,” he says. The result: true binaural processing.
This gives the hearing aid user a “better spatial management of noise,” says Ganguli.
Gennum is not the first to develop such a concept. Ganguli points to Siemens’ Acuris, which allows for the hearing aids to be synchronized, but does not yet have the kinds of data rates to enable audio and true binaural processing. “We believe that we’re going to spawn the next generation of hearing aid innovation [with this],” says Ganguli.
The concept of digitally produced, three-dimensional hearing is not a pie-in-the-sky claim. Gennum’s engineers are fully enamored and committed to the idea. “Every time I talk to the algorithm designers about this, their eyes light up as they see new possibilities for innovation,” says Ganguli.
The idea is rooted in practical reality as well. According to Ganguli, about 50% of hearing aids are sold in pairs, so the additional value created by binaural processing may drive unit growth in the hearing markets.
Like the convergence of a technological interface, this convergence of the biological experience of hearing with its digital recreation will be provided by the company’s Falcon device.
But Gennum’s innovative approach is not confined solely to its hearing instruments. It brings the same commitment to supplying its worldwide markets.
The Whole Wide World
The company sells its products all over the world. Among its outposts are regional facilities in the United Kingdom and Japan.
Because it markets to a wide variety of regions, the products it offers vary. For instance, Ganguli says that where market penetration is quite good, such as in the Scandinavian countries, it has the advantage of the hearing devices being subsidized by the government. But even in those countries—like the United States—where there is little to no subsidy, the market penetration is about the same. There is a simple reason for this: End users in these countries are willing to pay for a high-end instrument.
But Gennum is savvy enough to know that a business cannot be built solely on a high-end clientele. Acknowledging its history as a dominant player in the analog market, the company wants to transition to the digital age as a dominant supplier of this technology. To that end, it has developed the Foundation digital processor, a low price-point digital device. “It is doing very well in places like China,” says Ganguli.
The Chinese market is an example of the growth potential of hearing aid technology. Though it is the most populous country in the world, the number of Chinese hearing instrument users as a percentage of the population is still quite low. By making an affordable instrument—Ganguli notes that in developing markets, a device that costs a few hundred dollars is in reach of most people—there is huge growth potential.But creating an affordable, high-performance device is only part of the equation. The company also must support the device once it is sold.
Technical support for the company’s hearing instruments—be they hearing devices for the hearing impaired or hearing clients—is handled through Gennum’s Canadian headquarters. It is a full-scale approach. “There are lots of e-mails, telephone calls, and plane rides involved,” Ganguli says with a chuckle, describing the extent of the company’s customer support.
In addition, the company supplies its ARKbase software to help in the design, calibration, and manufacturing of hearing instruments. “What we’ve tried to do is provide very good development tools to our customers,” says Ganguli. The software is designed primarily for those who use Gennum components to develop and build their own hearing instruments.
Once the ARKbase software is installed, the user can then begin using the password-protected ARKonline wizard to configure the digital instrument. Among the features of the wizard is the ability to choose different configurations—two or four channel, and its specific transducers. The wizard will take this information and create a product DLL, which can be downloaded and used to create the device.
All this points to a continuing future for Gennum. The company continues to build a legacy that began more than three decades ago at Westinghouse.
Canadian Legacy, International Future
Gennum is a Canadian company through and through. It was founded 32 years ago by a group of Westinghouse employees who acquired the company’s hearing technology (at the time Westinghouse manufactured hearing instrument components).
The company employs 250 people in the Audio and Wireless Division. Gennum has two other divisions—Video and Data Communications. The Video Division provides high-definition video chips for studio settings. The Data Communications Division provides data chips to a variety of customers, including Cisco Systems.
At one time, what is now the Audio and Wireless Division was the primary revenue builder in the company. But with the advent of high-definition video, the Video Division is now the primary unit. The other two divisions employ Gennum’s remaining 400 staff.
Though all of the chips the company distributes and uses are made in places like Taiwan, it does all the packaging and assembly in Canada. The reason is pragmatic, Ganguli explains, a function of the high quality at a low cost—the Taiwanese can deliver the chips, while the Canadian facility has the expertise to assembly and package the components.
The Canadian facility consists of three buildings—two of which are joined by a connected corridor and a third down the street from the other two. All of the company’s Canadian headquarters, assembly, and packaging functions are housed in these buildings.
As for the future, after the introduction of the Falcon, Ganguli says that the goal is to “stay ahead of the market.” And to do that, Ganguli cites a simple company philosophy: “What you have in your ear can bring the world in or it can shut it out.” The company’s goal to converge disparate technologies is clearly aimed at opening the door to the entire world.
C.A. Wolski is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report.