Homegrown hearing aid cuts noise – and masks – with help from AI

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From fathers estranged from each other due to social distancing to mask-wearing that takes away their ability to lip-read, the pandemic has created additional challenges for those struggling to hear.

Add other factors like plexiglass in businesses, hearing experts say, and it can become nearly impossible for people with hearing loss to understand what is being said to them. These same experts have unwittingly created technology for a hearing aid that can help overcome these challenges.

Eden Prairie-based Starkey rolled out its Evolv AI hearing aids in August and learned how the devices can help people hear during the pandemic.

The “AI” stands for artificial intelligence. According to Starkey, the hearing aid constantly adjusts with AI technology, with up to “55 million personalized adjustments per hour”.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” said Dr. Dave Fabry, chief innovation officer at Starkey, of the Evolv AI line of hearing aids. “We had no idea we were developing it for something that would become such a part of our lives now two years later.”

By double-tapping the hearing aid or launching it via a smartphone app, users activate ‘Edge Mode’, which instructs the hearing aid to focus on speech and drown out some background noise .

“My patients all started saying, ‘You told me to use [Edge Mode] in a noisy listening environment. But I found that when I communicated with someone who was wearing a mask, I heard them so much more clearly,” Fabry said.

The hearing aid also allows people to listen to music through them, take phone calls, track physical activity, and send an alert to designated emergency contacts if the user falls.

“It makes all the difference,” said Heidi Wilson, who was recently fitted with a pair of Evolv AI hearing aids.

“One of my philosophies being in my 70s is that I want to be vitally alive, and being able to hear is such a big part of that,” Wilson added.

Wilson said she recently had trouble hearing a Walmart employee who was wearing a mask and parked behind a sheet of plexiglass — until she activated Edge Mode.

“I tapped twice, then I heard her,” Wilson said.

“It’s just a big trip to learn more about them and to be able to live my life,” she added. “I’ve had hip replacements, eye surgery, all those things as I get older and all you do is keep adapting, but if you keep adapting, you keep living.”

If you think you might benefit from having your hearing checked, Starkey offers an online test.

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