What Will We Be Smiling About in the Future?

Final Word | May 2015 Hearing Review

Dennis Van Vliet, AuD

Dennis Van Vliet, AuD

A “few years ago” (I think sometime in the late 1980s), some friends and I were sitting around with coffee after our morning ritual at the gym we belonged to. We were all in business of some sort. There was a food broker, a couple of partners in a fiber optic component supply company, two medical equipment supply salespersons, a telephone engineer or two, an environmental science consultant, and I was in an audiology private practice.

It may be hard to imagine, but this was a time before widespread use of email. In fact, the topic of personal and small business facsimile machines came up as something that we should consider for our businesses. There was a thriving opportunity for salespeople selling desktop FAX machines to businesses at the time. For several hundred dollars or more, one could buy a machine that took up a small footprint on a desk, emitted rings and beeps, and produced an effluent of rolled up thermal printed paper containing critical information that couldn’t wait for the US postal service. One of the business owners said, “I can’t imagine anything could be so important that you’d need a machine to get a hard copy in a few minutes. If it is that important, you can pick up the phone!”

Here we are now, about 25 years later, and FAX has been reduced to an annoyance. When the occasional request for a FAX communication comes up, we have to figure out how to set up our multifunction printer to send and receive, or better yet, ask them to mail the document!

The smile that this memory brings up makes me think about what we will smile about 25 years from now. (Let’s not do the math on how old I might be—just pretend that we might have some similar needs in 2040.)

Passwords. The daily routine of password roulette will be a thing of the past. The stress of trying to remember which variation of our common-themed password we used weeks ago when we went to an online site will be long gone. We will simply gaze into a lens on our device screen, and there will be no mistake that we are who we say we are. No password, no security questions, and no reason other than genealogy to know your mother’s maiden name.

Wireless connections. No longer will we visit an airport or other venue and see a wireless network “available” only to find that, if we select it, the capacity is so pitiful that it prevents us from getting any connection by wireless or mobile. Some enterprises will have figured out how to provide economical wireless to anyone, anywhere. (I worry that hotels will figure out how to block these signals and charge us even more than today, however.)

Land lines. Will be gone.

Battery charging. Battery technology will have advanced to the point that charging will be necessary only once a week or less. Whenever we need to charge, it will be wirelessly or by the use of one, and only one, universal cord.

Social media. I can only hope that social media will no longer be a forum for furious exchange of ignorance and outright untruths.

Baby Boomers. The population wave of boomers will be a thing of the past. Retailers will be busily talking about how to deal with the “new” reality of declining seniors and how to appeal to the upcoming wave of millennials. We boomers who are still left will be in our mid-90s and will continue to be a challenge for any provider we meet.

Hearing aids (I know you were waiting for this!). If we look back 25 years and compare the evolution of hearing aids, the date would be 1990. We were watching Pretty Woman, The Hunt for Red October, Home Alone, and Rocky V, and suffering from no Star Wars since 1983 at the movies. Will Ferrell was a sports intern at NBC television. Programmable hearing aids and digital technology were just emerging. We had hearing aids with technology that exceeded our protocols for fitting. Clinicians were busy catching up with the technology.

Today, we are in a similar position with noise reduction and the algorithms to control ear-to-ear coordination of features, including directional microphones. Clinicians and researchers are busy trying to understand the noise reduction options, and how to assess patients so that the options may be programmed optimally. We are watching Star Wars Episode VII, 50 Shades of Grey, and yet another silly movie with Will Ferrell.

Looking ahead, and judging by the historic pace of hearing aid advancements, we will be around 8 or so generations of major platform changes along. Those changes will undoubtedly bring better battery technology and improved convenience for the hearing aid user. Better batteries may bring the options for increased performance that is limited today by 1.4 volts and limited current capacity.

I suspect that we won’t have the same worries about limitations and distortion at the front end of hearing aids. Music and speech should have better fidelity and utility in a variety of environments. Physical and acoustic facts won’t change, but our ability to cope will steadily improve.

The Final Word? Things will change in 25 years, and we will look back and smile at how primitive our attempts today are by comparison. The options for consumers, and the standards of care will undoubtedly change. Some of those changes will be disruptive. It will be up to us to put our buggy whips and USB drives into storage (Yes, there will be something else!) and embrace the new realities with the experience that we have gained by working with real patients; human behavior doesn’t change all that much…

Just like the movies. I imagine that there will be another Star Wars movie in 2040, and yet another silly movie starring Will Ferrell.

Dennis Van Vliet, AuD, has been a prominent clinician, columnist, educator, and leader in the hearing healthcare field for nearly 40 years, and currently serves as the senior director of professional relations for Starkey Technologies, Eden Prairie, Minn.

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Original citation for this article: Van Vliet, D. Looking Back and Looking Ahead 25 Years: What Will We Be Smiling About in the Future? Hearing Review. 2015;22(5):50.