One of the most impressive things I saw at this year's CES was the progress that's been made with technologies to assist people with visual or auditory impairments. As much as I love the display technologies or myriad smart home products, these assistive technology products have the potential to change people's lives in a very profound way.
Let's start with tech for the visually impaired. I've already written about the tiny OrCam My Eye 2.0, which can recognize faces and read books, menus, and other things.
eSight Headset Helps Legally Blind See
eSight has another approach, using electronic glasses that can actually enable some legally blind people to see. The basic device is a headset with a tiltable screen that connects to a controller. The headset contains a HD camera and two depth sensors, which capture pictures of the world and display them on two OLED displays. The images are then viewed through lenses that are typically customized for each eye. The device can provide up to a 24x zoom, and can auto-focus to switch between short-range vision—such as watching TV or reading a book—and long-range vision, for walking or looking out a window. The base unit has 2 hours of battery life, which can be extended to 8 hours with the external battery unit. Based on Android and the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, the unit looks a bit bulky and weighs 100 grams, but does make it possible for those who are legally blind to do more than they could otherwise. The company has been working on similar products since 2006, and was able to get this platform to market in February of 2017.
eSight introduced me to Rosa, who is legally blind, but has been using the device for the past 2 months under a grant from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). With eSight, Rosa told me, her vision has improved from 20/200 with the glasses she previous had to 20/20 with the new headset, and she's now able to start taking college classes. eSight has enabled her to do things like go to the college library and easily find a book, rather than having to ask a librarian to direct her to a specific machine to read. The device gives her a lot more freedom, Rosa said, and she got very emotional describing how much it had changed her life, calling the eSight device her "get out of jail card." At $9,995, it's not cheap, but eSight says it is working with various organizations—like Nevada's DETR—to make it more affordable.
New Tools to Improve Hearing
I was also impressed by the range of products designed for those with mild to moderate hearing loss, and the number of such products has grown significantly since last year, when over-the-counter hearing aids became legal to sell in the U.S. There are now a variety of such products on the market, but here are a few I saw at CES:
Nuheara made a splash last year with its IQ Buds, $299 wireless noise-cancelling earbuds that can be controlled with Siri or Google, and most interestingly, include a "Sinc" feature that lets you dial up or down ambient noise, which makes a big difference in places like crowded restaurants.
This year, it introduced a lower-end $199 version called LiveIQ, with noise cancellation but without the background noise control. Due out this summer: a higher-end $499 version called IQ Buds Boost includes a feature they call "Ear IQ," which lets you calibrate each ear according to a formula often used for tuning hearing devices for those who need specific hearing aid functionality.
I like the concept of IQ Buds a lot, but it will be interesting to see if the IQ Buds Boost can fill a niche between basic personal sound amplifiers (PSAPs) and real hearing aids. These should be out in the spring.
In a similar vein, LIZN has announced its own "hearpieces," which are designed to improve communication by reducing background noise. At $199, they don't seem to have all the features of the IQ Buds, but are a bit smaller and more discrete, and available for pre-order for just $149. They are expected to ship in March of this year.
Actual hearing aids were also available, and these were designed to be worn all day instead of just when listening to music, or trying to hear a conversation in a noisy environment.
Eargo offers hearing aids aimed at the vast majority of people in the U.S. who have mild to moderate hearing loss but don't yet have a hearing solution (which the company estimates at 40 million out of the 48 million who have some hearing loss). The company has a direct-to-consumer approach in which it sends a licensed hearing professional to customize the device for a particular customer. But what seems to set Eargo apart is the very small size of the device, which slides into the ear canal in such a way as to be basically invisible, and uses tiny fibers to hold the device in place while allowing air to flow in and out of the ear. There are two versions available, for $1,500 and $2,250, with the newer high-end model offering better audio fidelity and noise reduction. As with the lower priced products, these come with a charging case.
When I think about consumer hearing aids, ReSound is the first company that comes to mind. ReSound focuses on professional level hearing aids that are typically fitted by audiologists; however, ReSound says that while with a typical hearing aid most people need four to six audiologist visits in the first year, with their products much of this can be done by telemedicine.
ReSound's newest product is the Linx 3D, which the company says is better at identifying speech in a noisy room and lets you hear more sounds around you; additionally, the Linx 3D may also be used as a wireless headphone. The company says it's device can offer surround sound along with the ability to hear the sounds around you in most cases, and is capable of switching to "binaural directionality" when you want to focus on a particular conversation. Typically the Linx 3D sell for $1,500 to $2,500/device, plus service. For people with even more pronounced hearing loss, the company offers its ENZO 3D model.
I've been lucky in that so far I haven't needed these products. But many of us will experience some hearing loss as we get older, and I know a number of people who have visual or hearing impairments. For these people, these new products could really change their lives.