Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and feature amazing digital capabilities, like wifi connectivity, that profoundly improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Particularly, in some scenarios hearing aids have some difficulty with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Eliminating background noise
But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a surprising source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the answer to better hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem relating to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are finding is that the mechanism insects use to solve this problem is in ways more powerful than our own.
The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a broader range of frequencies, permitting the insect to identify sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can detect the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has generally been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to provide simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.
Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of detecting and perceiving sound. By assessing the hearing mechanism of a variety of insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to construct a completely new mechanism that can be utilized in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be assessing hearing aids outfitted with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.
The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:
- More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
- The ability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.
Researchers will also be testing 3D printing procedures to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.
The future of hearing aids
For most of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to reconstruct the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.