In August, the Food and Drug Administration established a new category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, enabling consumers with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss to purchase hearing aids directly from stores or online retailers without the need for a medical exam, prescription, or a fitting adjustment by an audiologist. The move intends to help make hearing aids more accessible and affordable for some of the 30 million U.S. adults currently experiencing hearing loss. Historically, confusion, stigma and lack of access have prevented most people (especially older Americans and those living in rural areas) from addressing their hearing health. As we anticipate the rollout of OTC hearing aids, the role of Bluetooth audio is pivotal.
Many people recognize and interact with Bluetooth technology every day, but they may not be fully aware of the organization behind the technology. For more than 20 years, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a consortium of over 38,000 companies, has revolutionized wireless audio.
This summer, the Bluetooth SIG announced the completion of the LE Audio specifications, along with the introduction of Auracast™ broadcast audio, both of which will enhance audio experiences for a variety of users. This major advancement to Bluetooth audio could help increase the proliferation of hearing aids of all types, including OTC, improve the lives of people with hearing loss and introduce the next generation of assistive listening system (ALS) technologies.
LE Audio Setting the Stage for the Next 20 Years
Several years ago, the Bluetooth SIG began collaborating with the hearing aid industry to enhance Bluetooth technology to better meet the needs of people with hearing loss. The industry came to the Bluetooth SIG with two central challenges. First, no standard existed for how to develop a Bluetooth hearing aid. Second, while current assistive listening system (ALS) technologies, such as inductive loops, have been providing great benefits to people with hearing loss, they suffer from many challenges that have limited their deployment, including poor quality, high cost, and lack of privacy. These discussions resulted in the release of LE Audio, a new architecture for Bluetooth audio.
The introduction of LE Audio means Bluetooth audio now has two modes of operation: Classic Audio and LE Audio. LE Audio provides all the capabilities of Classic Audio but with advanced features that enable an even better experience and new use cases.
The most relevant and beneficial enhancements to the hearing aid industry include overall better audio quality, latency, and lower power consumption, which contributes to improved battery life and a more comprehensive selection of devices in terms of form and style. LE Audio also delivers true global interoperability, allowing hearing aid users to realize the same benefits of Bluetooth audio enjoyed by users of standard Bluetooth headphones and earbuds, including wireless calling, listening, and watching.
What’s more, LE Audio establishes a standard for multi-stream audio. Bluetooth Multi-Stream Audio will enable the transmission of multiple, independent, synchronized audio streams between an audio source device, such as a smartphone, and one or more audio sink devices, such as a left and right hearing aid.
Unlike Classic Audio, LE Audio goes beyond supporting a point-to-point topology (one audio source communicating with one audio sync device). LE Audio enables an entirely new broadcast capability, allowing an audio transmitter to broadcast to an unlimited number of nearby Bluetooth audio receivers.
Broadcast audio opens significant new opportunities for innovation, including a powerful new capability, Auracast™ broadcast audio, which will improve the user experience and enhance how individuals engage with the world around them.
Auracast™ Broadcast Audio to Deliver Next-Generation Assistive Listening
Deployment and maintenance of existing assistive listening technologies can be expensive and extensive. The installation price often deters venues that may want to provide assistive listening, and non-loop ALS technologies aren’t always user-friendly or convenient.
Not only will Auracast™ broadcast audio offer higher audio quality and greater privacy, but it will also be easier and cheaper to deploy. By using a proven technology that’s ubiquitous in most consumer audio devices, Auracast™ broadcast audio will enable broader deployment and increased availability of ALS for people with hearing loss, and it will be more applicable to consumers with all levels of hearing health.
Public locations — from conference centers to movie theaters to airports — will deploy Auracast™ to promote better living and more equitable experiences through improved hearing for everyone. In researching the opportunities for Auracast™ broadcast audio, the Bluetooth SIG and Strategy Analytics found more than 60 million public locations across North America, Western Europe, and Asia Pacific that could benefit from broadcast audio.
The rollout of Auracast™ broadcast audio is an ecosystem-wide effort that includes many stakeholders, from manufacturers to associations to ALS providers. Increased ALS deployments thanks to Auracast™ broadcast audio can bring added value to all hearing devices, which can in turn increase demand for and adoption of hearing aids, including those that will now be available OTC. In anticipation of this wider adoption of ALS technology, the Bluetooth SIG is focused on helping people identify locations equipped with Auracast™ broadcast audio and is therefore planning to maintain a public directory of public locations offering Auracast™ broadcast audio.
The nation is on the cusp of a new reality for those living with hearing loss. The introduction of LE Audio and Auracast™ broadcast audio, coupled with the FDA’s action to break down barriers to purchasing hearing aids, will help improve the quality of life for millions.
About David Hollander
David Hollander is the Senior Director of Marketing for the Bluetooth SIG. His team is dedicated to raising awareness of the expanding capabilities of Bluetooth in the IoT and advancing the interests of Bluetooth creators and users across the globe.