This week, the FDA announced that hearing aids can be purchased over the counter (OTC) without a prescription from an audiologist. In addition to assisting with everyday hearing, many new devices will support the next generation of Bluetooth called Low Energy (LE) Audio, part of Bluetooth 5.2, with features designed specifically for hearing aids.
One of the most impactful features of Bluetooth LE will be a new kind of Assistive Listening System (ALS) called Auracast. Auracast is a private broadcast capability that will be used in public venues such as theaters, concert halls, museums, airports, bars, gyms, cinemas, conference centers, places of worship, et al. The broadcast transmits audio directly to compatible Bluetooth hearing aids, rather than rely on hearing aid wearers to decipher ambient sound emanating from a venue's speakers. Before, the hearing impaired had to rent a so-called telecoil or T-setting "loop" headphone system, often clunky and prone to interference – assuming the venue had decided to bear the cost of installing a loop system to begin with.
"I think what we're going to see is a vast explosion of capabilities for people with hearing aids," says Nick Hunn of WiFore Consulting, a wireless technology consulting company. "Everything that today's Bluetooth headset can do, such as connect to phones, tablets, and TVs, will become standard on hearing aids. That is an absolutely life-changing thing for people with hearing loss. Equally, we'll see features from the hearing aid industry percolating back into consumer products."
Smartphones with Bluetooth 5.2 with LE Audio are just rolling out in mostly higher-end phones, including all four iPhone 14 models, as are Bluetooth 5.2-compatible earbuds and headphones. Given the compelling use cases and lucrative OTC hearing aid market, Bluetooth 5.2 smartphones and Auracast-compliant OTC hearing aids will soon become ubiquitous in the next few years.
What OTC hearing aids are less and less likely to look like are, well, hearing aids. The familiar types that are either completely hidden in-the-canal models or the behind-the-ear types with the tear drop-shaped bulb and thin wire that goes over your ear bowl may fall out of favor. These traditional hearing aid form factors are designed to be invisible, to reduce the stigma of being hearing-impaired. But with so many of us now wearing in-ear Bluetooth buds, fewer will ever know or care if your in-ear bud is an OTC hearing aid or not.
[Image credit: Bluetooth SIG