Present day hearing aids have come a long way; present models are remarkably effective and come with incredible digital functions, such as wifi connectivity, that drastically enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Specifically, in a few instances hearing aids have some challenges with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Eliminating background noise
But that may soon change, as the most current research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the key to improved hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem in terms of hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are discovering is that the system insects use to solve this problem is in ways more powerful than our own.
The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a greater range of frequencies, permitting the insect to perceive sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can detect the directionality and distance of sound in ways more precise than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has normally been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to provide straightforward amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a 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 examining the hearing mechanism of a variety of insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to construct a brand new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Experts 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 equipped 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 lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
- The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while erasing background noise.
Researchers will also be testing 3D printing procedures to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.
The future of hearing aids
For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been constructed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to replicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Instead of trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.