Modular hearing aids: functional, rechargeable, beautiful

Monday, 12 March, 2018


A Melbourne researcher has helped design what is claimed to be the world’s first modular hearing aid — a breakthrough that took 130 prototypes to get right.

The design process for the new hearing aid, Facett, saw RMIT University lecturer Leah Heiss spend 37 weeks embedded with the company behind the device, Blamey Saunders Hears. Her role during this time was to always keep good design at front of mind.

“There is often a disjunct between design and technology development,” explained Heiss.

“When a concept design is handed over to engineering, a whole lot of technical decisions are made, and by the time the designer returns the technology has a form that can’t easily be modified.

“Because I was there for almost nine months, I was at the table with the engineers and the audiologists. I could keep human-centred design principles in focus.

“As a core part of the team, I could say, ‘This change will have an adverse impact on how users feel about this technology, let’s keep thinking.’”

The result of this collaboration is a product that is not only incredibly functional — modular, rechargeable and snapping together with magnets so anyone with dexterity issues can use it with ease — but also aesthetically beautiful.

“With medical technologies, there is often very little consideration of the emotional impact,” said Heiss. “The focus is on clinical efficacy and making sure something works, then basic maintenance — is it cleanable, is it wipeable? Just make it skintone, it will be fine.

“Whereas we’re all actually thinking, feeling human beings. We have aesthetic wants and needs.”

This is especially important for the millions of people around the world who have untreated hearing loss, and don’t want to suffer from the perceived stigma of wearing a hearing aid.

“The stigma is closely connected with ageing and all the feelings people have about that, growing more frail or dependent, wanting to avoid giving away signals your body is ‘letting you down’,” Heiss said.

“This is about helping people get over the line to take up a technology that could dramatically improve their health and wellbeing — to get them past that emotional barrier through great design.”

Inspired by the natural forms of crystals, Heiss spent days with the Melbourne Museum’s mineralogy collection, constantly thinking about colour, texture and form. All 130 iterative models are currently on display at a special exhibition at the museum, recognising their significance for Victoria.

About half of the prototypes were 3D printed at RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, with the evolving models tested by a cross-disciplinary team involving mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, audiology and design. The team would take each new model and test it on a special mannequin, examining issues like how it sat on the ear and what effect that had on the microphones inside.

“Actually creating the 3D-printed models and having something physical to work with was an essential part of this process,” said Heiss.

“Rather than just a concept on paper, we had something tangible that helped draw these varied fields of expertise together around some really complex problems.”

For Dr Elaine Saunders, co-founder of Blamey Saunders Hears, the collaborative development process was essential to fulfilling the company’s philosophy of creating health solutions in partnership with its clients.

“One of the challenges in creating a revolution via product innovation is that most people can’t detail exactly what they want to see in a product until it starts to take form,” Saunders said.

“By embedding a designer throughout our process we have been able to really connect with clients right from the start, and then iteratively evolve our solution based on what works from a human-centred design perspective.

“It’s this clinical, design and engineering collaboration over time that has enabled such a strong solution that we can see people connect with in a deeply personal way.”

Saunders said universities are in a unique position to support technology innovation by providing ‘thinkers’ who can come into a team and represent a clear, often challenging view, backed by a wealth of knowledge.

“It’s this convergence of commercial strategic development and specialist university-supported global thinking that creates a cutting-edge view, with a real passion for delivery motivated by different drivers.

“Indeed, this could present strong possibilities for both industry and universities in delivering innovations through collaboration.”

As for Heiss, she continues to be driven by design to improve life; to humanise health technologies and engage with people’s emotional experience.

“By working to understand, through empathy, the shame and embarrassment people feel when they have to deal with these medical apparatuses, we can develop things that people really want to wear — and that can be life-changing.”

Images credit: Blamey Saunders Hears.

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