Today’s hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and feature incredible digital capabilities, like wifi connectivity, that drastically 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 difficulty with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Cutting out background noise
But that may soon change, as the latest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unexpected source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the secret to better hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem related to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more effective than our own.
The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, enabling the insect to perceive sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can recognize the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has typically been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.
Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re questioning how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of detecting and perceiving sound. By analyzing the hearing mechanism of various insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to produce a brand new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Researchers 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 outfitted with a unique 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 eventually result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and longer battery life.
- The ability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out background noise.
Researchers will also be testing 3D printing methods to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.
The future of hearing aids
For the majority of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to duplicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.