Researchers develop innovative hearing contact lenses for people with hearing loss

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Excessive noise, hearing loss, vascular constriction, old age – hearing difficulties can be caused by many factors. To help improve the quality of life for people with hearing loss, the Mannheim start-up Vibrosonic has developed an innovative new hearing aid with a built-in speaker that sits directly on the eardrum.

This hearing contact lens® is not an implant, and the sound quality it offers surpasses other hearing systems currently on the market. Vibrosonic is a spin-off company of the ENT Clinic at the University of Tübingen and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA through its project group for Automation in Medicine and Biotechnology PAMB.

According to the German association for the hearing impaired – Deutscher Schwerhörigenbund eV – some 15 million Germans are hard of hearing. In many cases, hearing aids can improve hearing ability and make everyday life easier for those affected. With most standard hearing aids, the speaker is located inside the user’s ear canal.

This produces acoustic distortions which can affect the quality of the sound. The microphone is placed behind the ear where it is sensitive to noise interference such as wind. Mannheim start-up Vibrosonic is determined to meet these challenges with its innovative hearing solution.

The company was founded in 2016 by Dr Dominik Kaltenbacher and Dr Jonathan Schächtele – former researchers of the Fraunhofer Project Group PAMB – and Dr Ernst Dalhoff of the ENT clinic at the University of Tübingen. Five years later, Vibrosonic now employs 27 people.

Based on their innovative hearing contact lens®, Vibrosonic hearing solutions amplify sound in the frequency range from 80 Hz to 12 kHz

Vibrosonic alpha, the spin-off’s first CE-certified hearing solution, consists of three components: the hearing contact lens®, an ear canal module and a behind-the-ear module. The hearing contact lens® and the ear canal module remain securely inside the ear canal; the behind-the-ear module can be removed.

With the hearing contact lens®, rather than just sitting inside the ear canal, the speaker is placed directly over the eardrum. It transmits vibrations directly to the ossicle, without interference from airborne noise. Sound is transmitted by direct mechanical stimulation of the ear. This allows the natural hearing process to be reproduced very effectively.

The hearing contact lens®, loudspeaker and one of the three components of Vibrosonic alpha, is capable of amplifying sounds over the entire audible frequency spectrum, ranging from less than 80 Hz to 12 kHz. Conventional systems are not able to do this.

Due to the differences in the shape of each eardrum, the hearing contact lens® is specially manufactured for each patient individually. In this process, the Vibrosonic actuator – a piezoelectric micro-speaker – is embedded in a silicon mold.

Because our hearing contact lens® is worn directly on the eardrum – just like a contact lens on your eye – very low and particularly high tones can be amplified very effectively, while the lens principle prevents disturbing noise caused by feedback. For example, low tones are crucial when listening to music because they make the sound richer. The ability to hear high tones correctly is important for understanding speech, because coded harmonics shape the character of the voice. “

Dr Dominik Kaltenbacher, CEO, Vibrosonic

Actuator structures a thousand times smaller than a human hair

In cases of severe hearing loss or extreme miniaturization, conventional hearing aids reach their limits due to feedback and distortion – the result of the performance limitations of the coil speakers used so far.

“Our hearing contact lens® uses the world’s first hearing aid speaker systematically developed and manufactured using microsystems engineering methods – the Vibrosonic actuator. The individual structures within the Vibrosonic actuator are a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. Despite its very small size, it offers extraordinary hearing performance, ”explains Kaltenbacher.

A hearing system for patients with mild to moderately severe hearing loss

Initial studies with a small number of participants have shown that Vibrosonic alpha can improve the hearing experience for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. The system is suitable for patients over the age of 18 and can be worn on one or both ears, depending on the degree of hearing loss.

However, there are plans to reduce the size of the current hearing system components, so that they fit discreetly deep into the ear canal, where they are invisible from the outside.


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