It has been nearly a year since 28c3, the chaos communication congress where I held my talk “Bionic Ears”. It’s been an interesting time since then with lots of developments that I hadn’t anticipated when I handed in the proposal for the talk. I have been planning to write a “what happened since then” post for a while and now, shortly before 29c3, here it is.
To those, who haven’t followed the whole story: some time in 2011 I had the idea of giving a talk about technology used in hearing aids. The reason for that was that I was (and still am) not happy with the hearing aid industry and how much (or little) they make use of technology. My talk was planned as a technical overview over what technology is used in hearing aids today and how we (the hacker community) could use or enhance it. To my knowledge, it was the first talk about hearing aids at a CCC congress, which was another reason to make it an introductory talk rather than a “look what I hacked” talk.
The reactions and feedback to my talk were overwhelming. I got tons of emails and comments in my blog from all over the world. People with hearing impairments were confirming that they experience the same frustrations with their hearing aids and the limitations that the hearing aid industry gives us. Apparently, I hit a nerve by raising my voice for the hearing-impaired. Also, many healthy people without hearing aids contacted me saying that they were surprised how bad the situation is, and they now fear even more to ever become hearing-impaired. Many people shared their stories or those of family members and friends with me. Many people shared links to interesting content regarding the field of audiology, hearing aids, medical appliances and hacking in general. Thank you all for your feedback!
With the people, also the press picked up my message. Several press articles were published about my talk in online media (see my list of publications) or print media (Hoerakusik, Spektrum Hoeren). The hearing aid industry is rather small and cozy and apparently I became a little famous as the troublemaker that kicks this dusty industry’s butt.
Apart from the people and the press, I also reached the corporate players in the industry. I got contacted by several hearing aid manufacturers receiving friendly invitations to visit their head quarters. I accepted two of those invitation. I visited audifon in Germany and Phonak in Switzerland. Both companies were very interested in my feedback and in return gave me valuable insights into their business. (Unfortunately not in their intellectual property though …).
I learned both, promising and disappointing things from my trips to the industry. The promising thing was that I had the chance to meet a lot of people in those companies who share my opinion about technology and the industry. Many of them fight exactly for the things I was complaining about in my talk. Many of them would love to see more advanced technology in the hearing aid industry. Many of them are open for new and innovative ideas to make better use of technology to make their customers’ life better. It gives me hope for the future, that there are actually the right people in the right positions in those companies.
However, the disappointing aspect was that many of those innovative ideas and approaches are shut down due to market numbers. The hearing aid market is just too small (only about 10.000.000 hearing aids are sold worldwide per year) and the majority of customers is too technophobic to jump on new technologies. This way, many innovations never make it to the market. My hope is that this will change in the future, since we, the generation of digital immigrants, will get older and be the first generation that is not afraid of too many buttons on a device.
I guess part of this problem might be solved earlier, if companies would be more open with their interfaces and if there would be more open standards that the maker and open source software industry can make use of. However, I did not see any of the industry members embracing the thought of more innovation by opening the industry.
Given what the press wrote about me, many people had the misconception that I started a hearing aid hacking project. That is actually not true and such a project never existed in my hands. I got some interesting pointers to projects and companies in the field, but most of them are in their infancy. I linked some of them in my blog.
People frequently ask me why I don’t start my own hearing aid project. I don’t like the sometimes somewhat accusing tone of that question, but maybe I should make my point clear here. I never said I had a hearing aid hacking project, I just gave an introductory talk about hearing aid technology on a hacker conference. I’d love to see and support hearing aid hacking projects, but I don’t have one on my own. The reason for that is the lack of resources. I have a full-time job working as a software developer at Google, which demands a lot of my time and energy and creativity. I like my project at work, but it is not related to hearing aids. As much as I would love to do more geeky projects in my spare time, I learned that I need to set the right priorities to not neglect my health or my social life.
My current activities in the field of hearing aids are loosely keeping contact to the industry, following relevant news and trying to keep up with the amount of emails in my inbox. I see myself as a messenger rather than the one who starts a revolution. Since my talk at the 28c3, I saw a lot of promising developments in the field. These developments give me hope and make me looking forward to the future. I thank all of you who reached out to me for your feedback and support!
Soon I will be packing my bags to travel to the 29c3. This time, just as an attendant, not a speaker. I hope to see you in Hamburg.