David Cannington is the Co-Founder & Chief Marketing Officer of Nuheara, a global leader in smart earbuds and personal hearing devices which use machine learning to change people’s lives by enhancing the power to hear.
Could you give a brief overview of Nuheara?
Our team at Nuheara greatly admires the work being done by The National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL). NAL-NL2 is a non-linear procedure that has traditionally been used for the prescriptive fitting of hearing aids. NAL-NL2 is currently licensed to major international hearing aid companies and audiology equipment manufacturers and is used to fit more hearing aids worldwide than any other system. Despite that, the number of hearing aids is insufficient to meet the needs of the number of people with hearing loss.
The World Health Organization just reported that over 1.5 billion people currently experience some degree of hearing loss, which could grow to 2.5 billion by 2050. In addition, 1.1 billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss from listening to music at loud volumes over prolonged periods of time. An estimated US $1 trillion is lost each year due to our collective failure to adequately address hearing loss.
Technology has the potential to catalyze solutions for this group of people who need assistance. A 2020 survey of 644 adults 55+ by SeniorLiving.org revealed that more than 38% of older adults with hearing loss who don’t use hearing aids labeled cost as the biggest reason for avoiding the devices. With both cost, stigma and the inconvenience of having to visit hearing a hearing professional office to fit a hearing aid the need for affordable and accessible solutions is even greater for the +30M people in the USA alone who could benefit.
That’s the primary reason why Nuheara developed the Ear ID™ personalization system using NAL-NL2 machine learning algorithms. This system allows the consumers to assess their hearing well-being from the comfort of their home and enable their personal hearing experience to adapt to their environment.
Could you share the genesis story behind this startup?
My co-founder Justin Miller and I previously worked together at Sensear, a company that makes smart hearing solutions for industrial workers. It’s there we realized how much more the consumer market needed smart, savvy solutions to address the unserviced needs of people with mild to moderate hearing loss problems.
In 2015 we set out to address with problem with Nuheara. With our first crowdfunding campaign in 2016 which raised AUD$1M, we had success generating interest in our original truly wireless earbud named IQbuds, which we shipped to users in over 80 countries worldwide.
We went on to build subsequent award-winning product generations. IQbuds BOOST was our product that introduced NAL-NL2 and Ear ID™, our proprietary and innovative process for calibrating the personalized hearing experience. IQbuds BOOST won awards from tech magazines like TWICE.
Our 3rd generation IQbuds² MAX, launched at CES 2020 and went on to win multiple global innovation awards. These include Australia Financial Review BOSS for Best Product Innovation, BBC Science Focus for Best Wireless Earbuds, and Men’s Health for Best Workout Headphones, among others. Most significantly IQbuds² MAX was recognized by TIME in the Top 100 Inventions of 2020.
Could you define and describe what Augmented hearing is?
Augmented hearing is simply the ability to blend your physical sound world with your digital audio world and create a truly bionic hearing experience. With Nuheara’s products, users can personalize the control they have over their hearing and audio experience. Using advanced Digital Signal Processing technology and functionality controls like Focus, SINC (Speech in Noise Control) and World EQ, users can adjust their sound environment to blend with their audio world. The wearer can personally select how much world sound comes through or how much is filtered out, and the Active Noise Cancellation feature works in concert with this.
How can situational awareness be enhanced?
Nuheara’s products provide a range of sound processing techniques that allow the wearer to enhance, personalize or adjust their situational awareness. Focus is a feature that uses “audio beamforming” technology to isolate and enhance sounds directly in front of the user. World EQ is a fine-tuning control, which allows you to filter out either high or low frequencies in your environment. Examples of unwanted high frequency noise may include plate and glass clinking. Conversely, if you’re in an environment with heavy low frequency noise, such as the hum of an office air conditioner, you can filter out bass by moving the app-provided control.
On the alternate end of the spectrum, if you want to tune out all sounds, Nuheara’s products provide a “world off” option with the hybrid Active Noise Cancellation fully engaged. Reviewers have noted the high quality of the “cone of silence” this feature creates and commented on how favorably it compares to similar products offered by other well-known tech brands.
Being sound sensitive is an issue for a small percentage of the population, how does the hearing bud assist this type of consumer?
The Cochlear Center at Johns Hopkins University estimates that upwards of 37 million Americans have hearing loss that can be categorized as mild or moderate. About two-thirds of all hearing loss is in people under 65 years of age. Even more alarming is that today 1 in 5 teenagers (ages 12 – 19) have hearing loss in one or both ears from listening to music too loud, illness, medications or genetics. It’s well-documented in audiology research that improved hearing health assists memory, retention, and brain function. Unaddressed hearing loss is the third largest cause of years lived with disability globally. Older adults with untreated hearing loss may incur health care costs on the magnitude of 46 percent greater than those who get the assistance they need, according to a 2018 study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over a decade, these costs could amount to $22,434 per person. Mild hearing loss can double the risk of an adult contracting dementia; moderate hearing loss can triple this risk.
In the US, it is estimated five percent of school-age children, or 2.5 million children, have auditory processing disorder, a sound sensitivity issue we are finding more and more parents purchasing Nuheara’s products to help their children with. Some examples include the parents of Jordan and Kai. The true prevalence may be greater due to undiagnosed or misdiagnosed cases. An estimated 15% of military veterans live with APD due to blast exposure.
About 11% of Americans report tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. 25% of American adults have experienced tinnitus lasting for at least five minutes in the past year. In one of the largest studies ever performed on hearing disorders affiliated with musicians, researchers discovered that musicians are 57% more likely to suffer from tinnitus as a result of their job. Another type of sound sensitivity is hyperacusis. A recent 2016 study published in Noise & Health suggested that 9.2% of adults may have self-reported hyperacusis.
Hundreds of happy users in countries around the world have reported how Nuheara’s products help them with all these kinds of issues, and more. We’ve had some users share compelling personal stories of dealing with little-known health issues like Minere’s disease, which typically can affect less than 0.2% of the US population but have a devastating effect on quality of life.
How is machine learning used to augment hearing?
All of our smart hearing devices come with a feature called Ear ID™, which creates a unique personal hearing profile by evaluating the users’ own hearing capabilities. This process integrates the international, industry-recognised NAL-NL2 prescription formula. Utilizing Artificial Intelligence functionality via neural networks, Ear ID™ then automatically calibrates our hearing buds, similar to the type of fitting experience you might experience when visiting an audiologist.
What are some of the biggest engineering or machine learning challenges in augmented hearing?
Nuheara’s engineering team have combined sufficient support for the neural network algorithms combined with multiple microphones that provide the sound processing and active noise cancellation all in a truly wireless earbud form factor. We’ve had feedback from certain reviewers who have noted how unusual it is to have ANC in a compact earbud form factor.
How big is the potential marketplace for assisted hearables?
There is a significant delta between the growing number of people with hearing loss worldwide (see WHO report) and the rate of distribution/product growth of hearing aids. Analysts like IDC noted in 2020 how much the sale of hearable devices fueled the growth of the wearables sector, with hearables accounting for 60% of all wearables sales in certain quarters. This stands in contrast to the hearing aid sales which dropped 58% year on year in the second quarter of 2020.
The most recent product launch is the IQbuds² MAX, what can consumers expect from this product?
IQbuds² MAX provides a personalized hearing experience, tailored through EarID. In addition, wearers will enjoy a high-quality “cone of silence” created by the hybrid Active Noise Cancellation and a high quality music listening experience that has been a favorite feature of certain tech reviewers. Users can toggle and sync their hearing buds with voice-prompt assistants and access hands-free calling, all through an award-winning consumer electronics interface.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about Nuheara?
Nuheara is on a mission to make hearing health affordable and accessible for the underserved needs of users with mild to moderate hearing loss category and to make products accessible and affordable to more people.
Our team has been hearing from thousands of users in different age groups how our products has made a difference for them. From reviewers with “hidden hearing loss” to users who leave enthusiastic, exclamation-point-filled comments on our website, it warms our hearts to see how our product is making a difference in our users’ lives. This includes the parents who are finding the support our products offer makes an impact for their kids with APD and other sensory processing challenges.
Thank you for the great interview, I really enjoyed learning more about this life changing product, readers who wish to learn more should visit Nuheara.