Oct 2017 New Scientist
Just what you need in the age of ubiquitous surveillance: the latest cochlear implants will allow users stream audio directly from their iPhone into their cochlear nerve. Apple and implant manufacturer Cochlear have made “Made for iPhone” connectivity available for any hearing implants that use the next-generation Nucleus 7 sound processor. The advance means that these implants can also stream music and Netflix shows. The technology was first unveiled in 2014 when it was added to hearing aids such as the Starkey Halo and ReSound LiNX. But this is the first time it’s been linked into the central nervous system.
While some cochlear implants already offer Bluetooth connectivity, these often require users to wear extra dongles or other intermediary devices to pick up digital signals, and then rebroadcast them to the hearing aid as radio. This technology simply beams the signal right into the brain.
It’s also a better way to use Bluetooth. Bluetooth headsets have been commonplace since the early 2000s, but the energy-sapping technology has meant they are typically clunky devices with poor battery life.
In 2014, Apple technicians developed a way to stream audio over the low energy Bluetooth format used by wearables such as FitBits. Now, tiny devices like hearing aids – and Apple’s Airpods — can stream audio signals for up to a week on a battery the size of an aspirin.
There is a small cost – the audio signal is highly compressed, and can sound much flatter than sounds from typical Bluetooth headsets. That’s unlikely to be a problem for cochlear implant users, as these devices can only stimulate a limited number of frequencies in the ear anyway — because of this low sound quality, cochlear implants are reserved for those with profound hearing loss.
However, the technology behind the new audio streaming models is likely to be adopted by consumer audio devices. Technology giants are betting heavily on audio interfaces becoming the norm in the future, all the better to further integrate voice-activated assistants such as Siri, OK Google, Cortana and Alexa into our daily routines.
It’s likely that in the future most of us will wear discreet, “transparent” ear buds that allow us to hear the world around us while also allowing us to field calls, texts, emails, and hear updates and directions directly from our phone.