Welcome to the Wireless Age

It’s no secret that many of the largest hearing instrument manufacturers have wireless headsets, assistive listening devices (ALDs), and personal communications divisions. And it’s clear why: As demonstrated in this issue, these types of devices—and the technologies they employ—hold tremendous promise for hearing instruments as well as for the products currently used in the telecommunications and consumer electronics industries. As William Demant Holding President Niels Jacobsen said in an interview, “[Hearing industry companies] are all involved in different types of communication equipment, and the key here is: 1) Audiological knowledge and [miniature] electronic acoustical engineering is a prerequisite for the development of these products, and 2) There is a need for wireless technology in the hearing aid sector. So, our emerging technologies and knowledge for product development can be re-used or adapted for both camps” (October 2004 HR, p 66).

Several years ago, an industry expert told me that the hearing industry might do well to heed the business lessons of the past and learn from the example of the railroads. At one time, the railroads were among the most powerful corporate entities in the United States, controlling almost one-third of all the stocks issued. So, where did these economic powerhouses go wrong? Answer: Railroad executives believed they were in the railroad business—the high-tech sector of its day. As time passed, however, cheaper more efficient methods for hauling freight across long distances gradually put the railroads at a competitive disadvantage. In the final analysis, it turns out that the railroads were not in the railroad business after all; they were in the transportation business.

Hearing instrument manufacturers and hearing care professionals are in both the personal communications and the hearing health care business, and the boundaries between these two areas will become increasingly blurred (eg, “Is this a hearing aid or a wireless communication device?”). Most of the ALD and headset divisions owned by hearing instrument manufacturers are considerably smaller than the hearing aid divisions, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. However, it is possible that, as wireless ALD products evolve from what a typical consumer would view as “neat gadgets” into “essential urban wear” (along with cell phones, PDAs, and MP3 players), wireless ALDs will experience far greater market demand and parallel product development with hearing instruments.

Assistive devices have often played the role of the poor stepchild compared to hearing aids in our industry. For many years, proponents of ALD technology have tried to persuade dispensing professionals to place greater emphasis on what these devices offer patients “when a hearing aid is just not enough.” However, according to the HR 2004 Dispenser Survey (June 2004), ALDs still make up less than 2% of gross revenues in a typical office/practice. Some offices don’t even offer them. Similarly, industry headlines in recent years have been dominated by advances in hearing instrument technology: circuit miniaturization and processing power, digital aids, directional microphones, advanced algorithms, and now open fittings.

In view of the wireless technology trends sweeping the world, it appears at least plausible that this is due to change—radically. On the march toward a total communications system (whatever that might mean in the future), wireless innovations will bring with them some of the biggest changes yet for the hearing industry. This edition of HR is largely devoted to examining what will someday be viewed as the early days of the Wireless Age.

Karl Strom