Modern hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and include incredible digital features, such as wifi connectivity, that substantially enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Particularly, in some instances hearing aids have some trouble 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 unusual source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the key to better hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem regarding hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the approach insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more efficient than our own.
The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a bigger range of frequencies, permitting the insect to sense sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can perceive the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has ordinarily been directed 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 scientists are now asking a completely 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 sensing and perceiving sound. By considering the hearing mechanism of a variety of insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to make a brand new mechanism that can be applied 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 equipped with a new kind of miniature microphone inspired by insects.
The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:
- More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
- The capacity to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out 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 most of their history, hearing aids have been constructed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.