Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; present models are highly effective and feature remarkable digital capabilities, like wireless connectivity, that strongly improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Specifically, in some situations hearing aids have some challenges with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Cutting out background noise
But that may soon change, as the most recent research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the secret to better hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem pertaining to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the mechanism insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more proficient than our own.
The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a bigger range of frequencies, permitting the insect to identify sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has typically been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to supply straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.
Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By evaluating the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to design a brand new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Scientists 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 furnished with a new type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.
The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:
- More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
- The ability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while reducing background noise.
Researchers will also be trying out 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 designed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to replicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.