Between the hum of construction, the wave of restaurant chatter, and the sounds of blaring street traffic, the world is full of noise straining our ear drums that we'd rather tune out. While hearing is something everyone struggles with to varying degrees, we tend not to address it until the necessity of a $5,000 pair of hearing aids arises later in life.
Now, a startup out of Cupertino, Calif. called Soundhawk hopes it can use the techie zeal and design savvy of modern wearable technology to address that issue in a way that will get younger individuals tackling hearing struggles more preemptively.
Its offering is an in-ear device for $299 (£175, AU$320), the shape and size of a flattened thimble, which weighs 8g. It communicates with your smartphone using Bluetooth 2.1 -- the best specification for sound quality -- to modify how you hear through a combination of directional noise reduction and volume amplification. The two-microphone amplifier, which can also make phone calls from your phone like a standard headset, is intended to be comfortable and subtle enough to be worn for hours at a time, every day.
The device is not a hearing aid, CEO Michael Kisch stresses, but what the company is calling a "smart listening system." It's one product among an emerging field of over-the-counter devices that are meant to tackle hearing issues situationally -- during a loud social gathering, or on an urban street -- and not from a diagnosis and treatment standpoint.
So while Kisch's phrasing has undeniable marketing purpose -- no one likes to admit they're hard of hearing -- the distinction is grounded in the technical underpinning of Soundhawk's product, which is not intended to be used as a stand-in for medical aids. "Hearing aids are really helping a much older customer who has a persistent problem. People with those issues clearly should stay in the hearing aid world," Kisch said.
Soundhawk unveiled its system Tuesday, available for pre-order now for $279 at a $20 discount for a limited time with a shipping date later this summer. The package nets you the Soundhawk Scoop, the in-ear headset, as well as a companion wireless mic and battery-powered charging station. The mic can be used to pick up and transmit remote sound up to 35 feet away, like the voice of a friend across the table who's strapped the mic to their shirt collar. Both are customizable using Soundhawk's mobile app for Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems.
"I use it when I'm driving with my kids," Kisch said of the wireless mic, adding that meetings in large conference rooms, late-night television sessions, and listening to speakers or professors in a lecture hall environment are all potential everyday use cases.
Soundhawk is the brain child of Rodney Perkins, founder of both Stanford University's California Ear Institute and the world's fourth largest maker of hearing aids, GN ReSound. Perkins, a serial entrepreneur in the health space, has pushed the technical boundaries of hearing aids with ReSound products like the LiNX that connect with iOS products. He saw a new opportunity in the nascent wearable tech scene to sell a non-medical "smart listening" system at a price comparable to mid-tier gadgets.
"Rodney has tremendous domain expertise around hearing. What he needed was a team that could take that expertise and build it into an actual consumer product," said Kisch. "We've resourced people with decades of hearing science expertise, but the people designing and building the product are people who come from Apple, Amazon, Moto, Palm, Flip Video."
Kisch himself came from Cisco, where he spent 11 years heading up marketing for numerous product lines, including the company's audio conferencing and telepresence systems. Soundhawk has thus far subsisted on $11.2 million in venture capital funding from True Ventures, Foxconn, and a number of angel investors. The Foxconn connection -- born from Soundhawk's Apple and Amazon alumni -- is a strategic manufacturing partnership that has helped the company bypass the standard scaling hurdles that have plagued the Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns of wearable hardware competitors.
"To create a product that can help people hear better, you have to understand the physiology of the ear, the psychoacoustics of how people perceive sound. But to make it accessible, you want this to be an easy, out-the-box experience. We're really, I think, the only person in the hearing health space who has ever tried to create this combination of these two distinct worlds," Kisch added.
If the price of the Soundhawk sounds too high, it's important to remember not only the cost people end up sinking into hearing aids down the line, but the way that the combination of that cost and the self-consciousness born from aging into hearing loss creates a situation where people go decades growing accustomed to poor hearing.
The price of a standard hearing aid varies considerably depending on where you purchase it, but prices have risen 8 percent per year for the last 20 years, according to The New York Times. Typically, the cost falls between $2,000 and $3,000 per ear for models made by industry giants like Siemens and Perkins' own ReSound, though the devices cost between $100 and $200 to manufacture. That disparity is why a standard hearing aid-related Google search yields headlines like, "Why does a hearing aid cost more than a laptop?"
Price-conscious customers can seek out cheaper options from stores like Costco, which sells low-end aids for as little as $500 per ear and nicer models from between $800 and $1500. But because insurance companies don't tend to cover hearing aids -- though they will, strangely, foot the bill for a $50,000 per ear cochlear implant surgery -- many people opt to wait long into the later stages of full-blown hearing loss before even considering that they could use technology to tackle the problem.
"Everybody has these situational hearing problems over the course of the day. There's never been a product that's been built for them. Most people, when they have theses situational problems, they'll wait 15 to 20 years until they get a hearing aid because it takes that long for their hearing to get bad enough," Kisch explained.
That's precisely the portion of the population Soundhawk is targeting. "You have to think of people who are getting into their 30s and 40s, 50s and 60s," Kisch said. Soundhawk went so far as to send people to large metropolitan areas to sample the sound levels of common spaces like restaurants, finding that in San Francisco, for instance, the noise level exceeded the decibel output of standing three feet from a power lawn mower.
"This is why when people go to restaurants now, they say, 'It's visually appealing, but did I hear anything? What was the conversation about?'" Kisch added. "This is a unique problem. It's for a different customer where we're going to try and help them listen better in specific situations throughout the day. This isn't a product that would be persistently worn. It would be worn two to five hours a day as the situation would dictate."
The linchpin of Soundhawk's product experience is not the comfort and design of the Scoop, but the personalization features of the smartphone app. Developed by Perkins over his decades of research, the customization that was packed into the app allows users to tune and modulate the different hearing profiles for different situations and also create custom ones that match the unique way our bodies process sound.
"It's the same product that's shipped to everyone, but once they get it within two to three minutes, they'll actually make the product unique to themselves. Not on a superficial, cosmetic level, but at a deep level around the algorithms and how the digital signal processing is functioning," Kisch said.
On the subject of whether or not Soundhawk can really take flight, Kisch likes to recall the moment that the startup sealed the partnership with Foxconn that would vastly accelerate the company's ability to realize and then deliver the device.
"One of the reasons they [Foxconn] really liked our business is because on their desk, they had a hundred proposals for smartwatches and activity trackers, but they had never heard anybody present them the idea we were presenting them," he said.
"We sort of view ourselves as a wearables company, but it's wearables with a purpose. Instead of introducing a barrier or trying to create a new technology interface, here we're just trying to optimize the one you've already got and have been trying to use for many years."
Update at 5:05 p.m. PT: A previous version of this story said that Soundhawk's system communicates with your smartphone using Bluetooth low-energy. That is incorrect; the product uses Bluetooth 2.1 because that specification provides the better audio quality.