Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and contain remarkable digital capabilities, such as wifi connectivity, that markedly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Specifically, in specific instances hearing aids have some difficulty with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Eliminating 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 key to better hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem in terms of 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 ways more powerful than our own.
The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a greater range of frequencies, permitting the insect to detect sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can recognize the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has commonly been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to supply simple amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely 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 analyzing the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to establish a completely new mechanism that can be applied 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 testing hearing aids furnished with a new type 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 eventually result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
- The capacity to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.
Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing techniques 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 replicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are constructing a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.