Present day hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and feature impressive digital features, such as wireless connectivity, that markedly improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Specifically, in specific situations hearing aids have some challenges with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Cutting out background noise
But that may soon change, as the latest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the answer to improved hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem pertaining to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are discovering is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more efficient than our own.
The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, allowing the insect to detect sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can perceive the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has typically been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.
Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By investigating the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to develop a completely new mechanism that can be utilized in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Scientists 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 new kind of miniature microphone inspired by insects.
The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:
- More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and longer battery life.
- The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.
Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing methods to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.
The future of hearing aids
For the majority of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to recreate 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 IMPROVE it.