Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; current models are remarkably effective and incorporate powerful digital features, like wifi connectivity, that substantially improve a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Particularly, in certain instances hearing aids have some trouble with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Cutting out background noise
But that may soon change, as the newest 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 equivalent problem in regard to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are discovering is that the mechanism insects use to solve this problem is in ways more efficient than our own.
The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a greater range of frequencies, enabling the insect to identify sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can recognize the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has normally been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to offer straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a completely different question.
Finding 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 assessing the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to establish a brand new mechanism that can be applied in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Researchers 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 equipped with a new 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 capability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.
Researchers will also be trying out 3D printing procedures 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 effort to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.