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'Invisible hearing aid' runs into controversy over its claims

Technically Incorrect: Nanoplug took to Indiegogo to plug its tech for a tiny hearing aid, but now it's touting a device that appears identical to a product already on the market. Contributors are furious.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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An image from Nanoplug's original video, featuring Jongha Lee. Nanoplug/Vimeo screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The people behind Nanoplug claimed it was the world's first "invisible" hearing aid.

They claimed it was instant-fit, user-programmable and affordable.

Now the creators are changing the claims they're making for the product and featuring an entirely new image of it on their Indiegogo page, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to an existing product. This has riled many of those who have committed money to the project.

Nanoplug, based in Munich, Germany, originally made claims that it would improve the lives of many who have problems with hearing. Its product, depicted as smaller than a coffee bean, was to be "half the size of the smallest devices currently on the market" and to be powered by a nanobattery. In a campaign that ran from late October to late December, the project raised $293, 426 from more than 1,000 people, far beyond its $80,000 goal.

In recent weeks, however, Nanoplug began to claim that it had to alter the design to comply with European regulations. It posted to its Indiegogo page: "We got CE approval, they required minor changes because Nanoplug is incredibly small and not safe for personal use. So it will be still invisible, of course, but little bit different (like Soundlens hearing aid)."

The Soundlens hearing aid already makes claims that it is the most advanced "invisible" hearing aid on the market. Its fine print describes the diminutive device as "virtually undetectable to others." It is a custom-fit product.

Nanoplug said in its latest update that its product would now be 11mm long and come with a replaceable battery, because of European regulations. Its original promise was that the product would be 7.1mm long and would come with a rechargeable nanobattery, each charge lasting around 6 days.

On Tuesday, when Nanoplug posted an image of the amended design, to many eyes it was not similar to the Soundlens. It did, however, appear identical to that of the BEE II 800 CIC Digital Hearing Aid. (Comparison of images below.) This product makes no claims of invisibility, but does call itself "tiny and adjustable."

Having seen this image, those in so-called Nanoplug Nation began to vent their anger on the Indiegogo comments page.

"If I don't get my $419 back, I will sue," said Ron Bittenbender. He added that he believes this image is clear evidence of a bait-and-switch.

I contacted Jongha Lee, the industrial designer behind Nanoplug, who featured in its original launch video. He said he no longer works with Nanoplug and declared it "a scam." He told me by e-mail: "Personally I did want to expose their scam on the Indiegogo comments section, but I didn't want to make all the backers to get nervous because of me. I don't know what I should do at the moment."

He has now begun to participate in the comments section on the Indiegogo site. He told me that he had spent three months working on the project and had not been paid according to his contract.

"I am also very frustrated because now all the people in Indiegogo are trying to sue me as well," Lee said. "I don't know what to do. I have no contact with the Nanoplug team and I am not in part of this team at all."

Nanoplug: 'It's not our fault'

Nevena Zivic, the Serbian founder of Nanoplug and its concept creator, rebutted Lee's suggestion that this is a scam. She insisted that she wasn't happy with Lee's work.

She told me via e-mail: "It is not our fault that existing design did not [get] approved because it is too small for individual use. But since we invested their money in parts and production, we are forced to use the parts as required. So, we can say, we are very fair in this campaign, and was honest from the beginning. They will all receive hearing aids, but little bit different."

Zivic added that her company now needs to reuse the existing parts in the new design, which is being made in China. She admitted that the finished product will, indeed, be similar to the BEE II. She described it as "the only possible design to be instant fit -- that is, suitable without taking ear impression at the audiologist office."

Hearing aids don't offer much possibility in terms of design, she said.

"Our contributors will get hearing aids, we will not scam them. But they need to be little bit different than imagined, unfortunately," Zivic said. "Finally, what you can get for $399 in hearing aid world, make an investigation, nothing, the cheapest aid is about $1000. They will get 2 for $399."

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The latest promise and image on the Nanoplug Indiegogo page. Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET
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And here's how the BEE II 800 CIC Digital Hearing Aid appears on a retail Web site. Advanced Affordable Hearing screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There have been questions for some time as to whether Nanoplug's original claims could be supported, especially those about its battery. Online forums debated whether the promised performance was possible.

I asked Lee whether he truly believed the original design was feasible. "Definitely," he said. "I actually received the components that go inside the housing."

For those who contributed and now feel duped, getting their money back may not be easy. Indiegogo's refunds policy is very simple: there aren't any.

It states: "Contributions on Indiegogo are nonrefundable according to our Terms of Use. A contribution is a transaction that takes place purely between the contributor, campaign owner and payment processor. If you'd like a refund for your contribution, please contact the campaign owner directly with your request."

However this saga ends, it does underscore the risks involved in committing your money to people and claims somewhere out there on the Internet.

As Zivic herself told me: "This is crowdfunding, you never know what could happen."