Hearing loss sucks. It is exhausting. I have suffered partial hearing loss in both ears since the mid-2000s. In order to function in the real world, I am forced to exist in a state of constant vigilance. I have to listen actively all the time to avoid creating an environment where people keep raising their voices to me.
Over time, I developed a method of interpreting physical and verbal cues to understand what people were saying to me in situations where it was difficult to hear – for example, at a conference or at a table that had multiple conversations took place at the same time.
Then COVID-19 happened and everyone was wearing masks. It was like starting over because I couldn’t see people’s lips filling in the gaps my hearing had left out.
It is estimated that over 5% of the world’s population has hearing loss. While it is most commonly associated with the elderly, hearing loss is also the most common service-related disability among U.S. military veterans.
The fact is that hearing loss affects people of all populations, from children with congenital disorders to otherwise healthy adults with injuries or illnesses to the elderly with age-related onset.
Unfortunately, as Whisper’s CEO and Co-Founder, Dwight Crow recently told me, “It’s not a very sexy problem to be solved.”
Whisper is an interesting company. It builds niche hardware to bring prospects into its subscription-based update service. Chances are the company’s marketing team doesn’t want to describe their job like that, but it’s difficult to balance the startup’s ambition with its simplicity.
The big idea here is pretty simple: you put hardware in people’s hands and then use your algorithms to make them keep coming back. Typically this model is reserved for entities like YouTube and Twitter. The endgame is usually to hold your attention for as long as possible so you can see as many ads as the big tech bosses can shove your throat.
But Whisper is not trying to persuade you to scroll infinitely to soften you up for impulse buying, rather it tries to solve all the problems with the hearing aid market.
Hearing aids suck
Hearing aids and the tests a doctor needs to recommend them are not covered by Medicare or most insurers in the United States. This means that people with hearing loss – of which people on low or fixed incomes make up a significantly high percentage – often have to come out of pocket for their devices. And that means paying an average of between one and six thousand dollars per device.
The high-end devices with traditional hearing aid technology are fine. When you beat the cost of audiophile music headphones, you are likely getting more than just “it makes things louder”. Okay is better than nothing, but it still means people have to live with inferior hearing, even if it’s amplified.
Whisper’s solution to hearing loss offers the prospect of not only improving your hearing, but also achieving superhuman levels when it comes to distinguishing targeted sounds from sounds.
How it works
In short, algorithms select audio to find all the salient sounds through a process called segmentation. This works in a similar way to how AI finds out what can be seen in a photo. For example, if you take a selfie in front of a sunset, Google’s AI can take apart different parts of the image to be labeled. It could decide that there is a you, a sunset, a beach, some clouds and some birds in the picture.
Later on, when you have the right hardware and are using Google Photos, you can just say, “Hey Google, show me all of my beach pictures” or “Hey Google, find pictures with clouds” and the AI can show up those results.
It works the same way with audio segmentation, although it is much more difficult to work with overlaps according to sounds like working with flat images.
Whisper didn’t invent the technology it uses – natural language processing and audio recognition, segmentation, and isolation have been around for as long as audio devices have been around – but it was one of the first to develop it into an immediately useful solution for have an age-old problem.
Whisper uses a proprietary ear aid that is more comfortable than average hearing aids. It connects wirelessly to a “Whisper Brain”, which processes the audio using modern algorithms. This will prevent it from becoming bulky. Technical implementation aside, how Whisper solves the related problems related to hearing loss is revolutionary.
Instead of charging thousands for the device, Whisper is working on a subscription. Not only does this allow customers to get hearing improvements without investing thousands upfront, but it also ensures they receive regular updates as the company improves its AI.
Better still, Whisper offers full reimbursement for damage and loss for three years so you don’t have to worry about you or your loved one giving up one of your five senses just because something bad happens or they don’t have a large enough emergency fund.
Why is it important?
Numerous studies have shown a direct link between hearing loss and dementia. However, there are only a few longitudinal studies that include long-term results for Alzheimer’s patients with hearing loss interventions. Research shows that people with hearing loss experience isolation that can be correlated with worsening symptoms of dementia. However, how much cognitive benefit a better hearing aid could offer people remains unclear.
When I spoke to Whisper CEO Dwight Crow, he said the time was right to disrupt:
We have seen an explosion in the ability to extract semantic meaning from language. Ultimately, we want to give people a better signal-to-noise ratio.
But how much difference can “better” make when it comes to hearing aids? The status quo is not too far from the old one Put a horn in your ear Method from the pre-electronic age. Now, hearing aids use specialized microphones to pick up sound and a built-in audio processor to get the signals the device is measuring to the correct frequency – but the end-use benefits for users aren’t much greater than just increasing the volume.
It turns out that not only can hearing aids get a lot better, but a little bit of clarity makes a big difference. According to Crow:
Our performance is two to three decibels better than any other hearing aid. For many people this is the difference between understandable and incomprehensible.
This is not a turnkey AI solution where some startup companies that fly at night are entering a hardware market to sell repackaged university AI (you check out the smart gadget market on the second page of Amazon).
Whisper has built a laboratory in California, works with the Mitsubishi Group on research, and the product development process involves working closely with groups of people living with hearing loss. And for all I have had to say from talking to Crow, the company really cares.
When I asked why they wanted to build a better hearing aid instead of using the same technology and know-how and developing espionage technology with DARPA for the Pentagon or something similar, Crow said it was because Whisper had “just such an opportunity gives to help people. “Both Crow and his co-founder decided to start the company after relatives struggled with hearing loss and the status quo.
You can find out more about Whisper here.
Published on February 15, 2021 – 19:41 UTC