Technology

The life-changing hearing aid that connects via Bluetooth to doorbells, appliances and fire alarms. By Gillian Terzis.

IFTTT technology and the Oticon Opn hearing aid

Aneta Gorelik, one of the world’s first recipients of the almost-invisible Bluetooth-connected hearing aid.
Credit: ANETA GORELIK

Aneta Gorelik’s hearing began to deteriorate in her early 20s. The loss was not severe, but it was significant enough to be discernible. She would struggle to make out what was being said on lengthy conference calls at work. High-frequency sounds eluded her: voices sounded muffled, consonants were slurred. “I had to requestion what people were saying a lot,” she says. A doctor confirmed she had sensorineural deafness, a condition that has afflicted her from birth. Gorelik was warned it would get worse but, perhaps out of denial, “tried to ignore it and work through it”. For years she was reluctant to use a hearing aid. There’s a stigma attached to hearing loss, she says, especially among younger adults. “No one really wants to admit to having an impairment at a young age.” 

Now, at the age of 30, she’s wearing a hearing aid for the first time – though you’d hardly notice it. Her device, the Oticon Opn, is neatly tucked behind the helix of her ear. It is almost invisible, save for a wire-thin plastic cord that holds the module in place. It can be customised to match your hair colour. Most hearing aids have a function known as directionality, which amplifies sound travelling in one direction (usually from in front of the user) to attenuate background noise, but this device is “omnidirectional”, which allows users to hear multiple speakers at once. It has different settings for quiet and noisy environments. 

I visit Gorelik in the South Yarra clinic of audiologist Alex Dadafarin, who walks me through two graphs that illustrate Gorelik’s sensitivity to different pitches and frequencies in her ears. “Low pitch and mid-pitch is not too bad,” Dadafarin says, “but high pitch is really bad, which is important for hearing consonants.” This means Gorelik has no trouble hearing sound, but it’s difficult for her to distinguish words. After ensuring the hearing aid is programmed with an appropriate level of amplification, Dadafarin asks Gorelik to try it on. The recalibrated settings have improved her aural clarity and, after a few adjustments, it seems to fit better. “The first time I wore it, it was like getting my ears pierced,” she says. “But you forget it’s there after a while.”

Gorelik’s hearing aid is unique for another reason: it’s the first in the world to connect to the internet through Bluetooth technology. James Battersby, Oticon Australia’s managing director, has said “the hope is for people to see limitless possibilities for connection” within the broad network of autonomous internet-connected devices, otherwise known as the Internet of Things. So far, the Opn can connect to a range of “smart” household items – doorbells, smoke detectors, electrical appliances, gaming consoles, alarms, cars and home heating systems – using a web-based automation system known as IFTTT (an abbreviation of “if this then that”). 

IFTTT allows you to automate actions between two services simultaneously. This can be as simple as receiving an email notification when a specific item goes on sale, or backing up a photo on Google Drive once you’ve uploaded it to Instagram. Other applications include controlling certain types of light bulbs and thermostats with the tap of an iPhone; discreetly triggering a phone call to get out of awkward encounters; or automatically updating your Android wallpaper to NASA’s image of the day. 

IFTTT technology plays a fundamental role in the Opn hearing aid’s functionality. Gorelik’s hearing aid has been configured to connect to an app called Ring, which issues speech and mobile notifications whenever someone rings her wireless doorbell. Ring can also detect motion through sensors and allow users to see who’s at their door from their smartphones, so they can monitor their surroundings from any vantage point. 

That said, it’s not unreasonable to suggest internet-enabled “smart” devices could be vulnerable to cyber attacks. Sue Halpern notes in The New York Review of Books that in 2013, “cybercriminals broke into more than 100,000 internet-enabled appliances including refrigerators and sent out 750,000 spam emails to their users”. Weeks later at the Black Hat Asia Security Conference, two Spanish security researchers created an iPhone-sized device for less than $20 that could allow a car’s lights, locks and brakes to be controlled remotely. Security matters, perhaps even more so given the market for Internet of Things products is projected to reach $US1.7 trillion in 2020, according to research company International Data Corporation. 

Living in a networked ecosystem heightens our exposure to such threats, but we have ourselves to blame. We’re active and willing participants in the surveillance of ourselves, especially if it makes our lives easier or is more convenient. In some ways technological devices are little more than a cipher for our confessional instincts – they can only serve us better if they know more about our lives.

Technologies such as smart devices and IFTTT, Halpern writes, herald “a significant change in how we will be living our lives when much of the material world is connected … to the internet”. I’d argue this is already a reality. There has been a widespread embrace of self-quantification through wearable devices or apps that log our moods, biometric data or fitness levels. Many of us stream TV shows through Netflix, which uses our viewing history to anticipate what we might watch in the future. This wholesale aggregation of personal information may seem useful, but only if it is assumed we have total ownership and control over it. Once we’ve recorded the data, where does it go? Here, things are murkier. It’s not always easy to discern who has access to our information. In the United States, a number of insurance companies have developed insurance policy programs for people based on their fitness tracker data. Activity data from a woman’s Fitbit has been used in a Canadian court as evidence in a personal injury lawsuit. 

Our data is a goldmine for companies and advertisers looking to profit from our needs and desires, and commercial logic may well see our homes and bodies evolve into advertising billboards. Logging out of social media is one thing, but opting out of a smart home is another. Our gadgets, smart or otherwise, own us as much as we own them. 

The banality of the “smart” label obscures these realities. Mostly it sounds like a euphemism for surveillance by stealth – the kind so incremental that resistance against it seems futile. The idea that our smart gadgets are spying on us sounds like conspiracy, even though Samsung warned buyers of its smart TVs in 2015 that “if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition”. 

Such reservations initially made me sceptical about the need for internet connectivity in a hearing aid, but it’s clear it improves the quality of life for Gorelik. “If you have a hearing impairment, the most important thing is to be able to hear,” she says. For her, being constantly connected is a necessity, even empowering. “I’m the god of my world,” she laughs. “I control everything!” As someone who is not hearing impaired, I suspect I take connection, both virtual and aural, for granted. Amid the anxiety and dread it can induce, I forget about its capacity to generate elation or even a fleeting sense of mastery. That in itself is no small thing. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Everything is connected". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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