Apple collaborates with device makers on MFi hearing aids

Employee of GN, the world's fourth largest maker of hearing aids, demonstrates the use of ReSound LiNX in Vienna

Apple’s given its ‘Made for iPhone’ (MFi) initiative a nice little kick in the pants by introducing all-new support in iOS 7 for physical gaming controllers (examples: Moga’s Ace Power and Logitech’s PowerShell), but now the company is looking to give another industry vertical a much-needed boost: the market for hearing aids and associated devices.

According to a new report Monday by Reuters, Apple has worked closely with Copenhagen, Denmark-based GN ReSound on the first batch of iPhone-connected devices for hearing-impaired customers.

The new gear is much more compact than before and taps the 2.4-gigahertz band using Bluetooth 4.0’s low-energy mode. The hardware works in tandem with special iOS software not only to improve one’s hearing, but to also stream music and double as a two-way headset for receiving phone calls…

The news gathering organization reports Apple and GN ReSound are about to take the stigma out of wearing an aid with an upcoming new device dubbed the LiNX:

The world’s fourth-largest maker has collaborated with Apple Inc to develop a device packed with Bluetooth-like technology that installed in the ear allows users to stream voice and music from their iPhones without the need for an intermediary device.

I can sympathize with the stigma.

Hearing aids usually are not pretty to look at as the whole industry cries for a touch of Apple’s design magic. Packing GN’s device into a tiny and attractive form factor and making it run for several days without frequent battery changes was challenging, the article notes:

GN had a headstart on Bluetooth technology for hearing aids as one of the world’s biggest wireless headset makers, but conventional bluetooth devices tend to be notoriously profligate users of energy and require sizeable antennas.

Overcoming those limitations gives LiNX users a cosmetic advantage by eliminating the need for a separate transmitter, typically worn round the neck.

No separate transmitter = better user experience and less stigma.

None of this is coincidental: Apple designed latest iOS devices to play nice with hearing aids by specifically picking the 2.4 GHz frequency band:

Apple went to all manufacturers and said it wanted to have a direct link from hearing aids to its phones using 2.4 GHz and, because GN was already on its second generation of such products, an instant pairing was made. 

Frequent visits followed between California and Copenhagen to build up the protocol and improve power-efficiency.

Apple conveniently filed for a number of patents (via AppleInsider) for a system in which these devices could communicate with one another to “share information on how best to configure the hearing aids in specific circumstances”.

The LiNX, due in the first quarter of next year, is what Morgan Stanley called the “first attempt to turn a hearing aid into more of a lifestyle product”. It was about the time someone took designing hearing aids seriously!

Expect more to follow as others firms like William Demant hint at collaborative efforts with Apple and Android vendors. For example, Starkey Technologies over in the United States is working on an MFi hearing aid which uses an 800-900 MHz band.

For the iPhone maker, the rewards are obvious.

This is a $15 billion industry so MFi hearing aids will boost iPhone sales while improving Apple’s already strong credibility in healthcare. Currently, the penetration rate among iPhone users in GN’s target group is only five to ten percent so there’s a lot of untapped potential here.

To me, this story exemplifies how convenient, expansive and useful low-power Bluetooth 4.0 is when coupled with iOS 7 and put to work with a little help from smart apps and MFi devices.

I’m also loving that Apple is devoting resources to clever iOS 7 features to help improve retailing (iBeacons), driving (iOS in the Car), gaming (iOS 7 gaming controllers), healthcare and lots of other verticals – potentially even on-the-go transactions with a rumored mobile payment service said to tap iWatch as a secure identity module.

Employee of GN, the world's fourth largest maker of hearing aids, demonstrates the use of ReSound LiNX in Vienna

I just wish the technology industry as a whole did more to help people with disabilities.

Reuters agrees as much:

The World Health Organization estimates there are 360 million people – over five percent of the world’s population – with a disabling loss of hearing, yet current hearing aid production meets less than ten percent of global need.

Berenberg Bank estimates only one in four who suffer from hearing loss in the United States use them. That might in part be down to stigma, part to cost.

In my opinion, too few companies allocate too few resources toward solving these pressing issues, and that’s not trashing Apple’s competitors – quite the contrary.

Samsung, for example, is a major player in healthcare. Moreover, the Galaxy maker donates around a hundred million bucks per annum to the Samsung Medical Center, a non-profit healthcare provider it founded in 1994.

There’s also the Samsung Medical Center which incorporates Samsung Seoul Hospital, Kangbook Samsung Hospital, Samsung Changwon Hospital Samsung Life Sciences Research Center and Samsung Cancer Center, the latter being the largest cancer center in Asia which collaborates with the multinational pharmaceuticals company Pfizer.

At the end of the day, technology should really be about improving people’s lives.

By the way, Denmark supplies half the world’s hearing aids.

Article images demonstrating the LiNX are credited to Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader.