Japan’s “New” Hearing Aid Concept

Anyone that has ever spent time near the ocean as kid has held up a seashell to their ear to “hear the waves.” Spoiler: You are listening to the waves, because you’re at the beach. This is known as seashell resonance, and it is the result of ambient sounds vibrating around in the cavity of the shell. Don’t believe it? Try holding that same shell up to your ear in, say, your living room and see what you hear.

Circumaural headphones are designed to “seal off” the ear from external noise and allow the listener to hear only the music they are trying to listen to. It is this same logic behind the Chubu Design Research Center’s new hearing aid.

Announced this week—and available at Tokyu Hands Department stores beginning in July—the Watshino Mimi  (私のミミ/“My Ears”) hearing aid blocks out external noise while resonating the sounds of whatever the user is trying to listen to.

My Ears is unique in that it is a powerless hearing aid. Wait a minute, what? How is that even possible you are probably asking yourself. Well, because the aid is nothing more than a urethane foam “ear cover.”

As Nikkei Technology reports, “In an acoustic analysis conducted at Nagoya Institute of Technology, the hearing aid strengthened sounds coming from the front by 14dB and sounds coming from all directions by 11dB on average (increase in sound pressure). Its weight is about 13 grams. In general, the hearing ability of humans begins to significantly deteriorate for high frequency sounds (2,000Hz or higher) at an age of about 60.”

My Ears amplifies sounds in the 1,800~2,000Hz frequency range.

Priced at ¥1,980 (US$16), skepticism is perhaps a natural first response. But maybe hold off casting judgement for few months and see if the aid actually works or if it’s just another infomercial quick cash grab.

Toshio Watanabe, representative director of the Center, adds, “When hearing ability deteriorates, it makes people feel alienated and they tend to withdraw from society.” While probably very true, it is less clear how wearing bright red or blue earmuffs is going to help someone feel less alienated.

Taking into consideration the stigma normally associated with hearing loss, it is easy to understand why many elderly refuse to wear “invisible type” hearing aids, even after being prescribed them. Pride and/or embarrassment no doubt play equal parts in this. So if these aids are left largely unused, again, what chance does a pair or bright red or blue earmuffs have? Maybe some will find My Ears an affordable “at home” option.

The fact that the aid makes use of what hearing is left, rather than attempting to replace what has been lost, means that it could possibly be used to sharpen someone’s listening skills. Several of the 10 subjects tested (10?!) reported just that. Although their tone ability failed to improve, several stated they had better overall understanding in conversational settings, even when not wearing My Ears. Not too dissimilar to how wearing an eyepatch can strengthen muscles in the uncovered eye?

Speaking of eyepatches, this is Japan we are talking about. Maybe people won’t be embarrassed to rock My Ears around town after all.

H/T: Nikkei Technology