If you’re hard of hearing and still haven’t given into buying a smartphone, it might be time you did. University of Essex researchers have developed a free mobile app that could serve as a low-cost, hassle-free alternative to standard hearing aids, as well as set the stage for the development of similar personalized healthcare devices.

BioAid, available for download in Apple’s iTunes Store, was developed by Ray Meddis of Essex’s Department of Psychology along with Nick Clark, formerly a research officer in the department, and Wendy Lecluyse of the University Campus Suffolk.

According to the Essex press announcement, the BioAid app “is available to anyone, anywhere without the need for a hearing test, and potentially holds the key to a future where tiny, phone-based hearing aids can be dispensed and adjusted remotely.”

“BioAid is special in the sense that it was developed within a research context,” Lecluyse said in an interview with Healthline. “About three years ago, we embarked on a research project to develop a novel, biologically-inspired hearing aid algorithm, mimicking the biological properties of the ear. Within this project, the need arose for a mobile platform to test the algorithm in real-life situations, resulting in the development of the BioAid app.”

A Unique Approach to Sound Processing

The sounds we hear contain a mixture of different frequencies, and hearing loss usually means losing sensitivity to some, but not all, of these frequencies, Meddis said in a press release. "Standard hearing aids amplify some frequencies more than others, but BioAid is different because it also compresses the very loud sounds that can make [social situations] intolerable," he added.

Getting a standard hearing aid can also be expensive and requires a doctor-administered hearing test. The BioAid app instead allows patients to fine-tune the settings to match their particular type and level of hearing loss.

“I don’t think this technology will replace hearing aids or hearing care professionals,” Lecluyse said. “However, BioAid does offer a new perspective on hearing aids and hearing care and provides a shift from expert-led to user-led fittings.”

The app uses the iPhone's microphone, audio processors, and earphones to help the user find the settings that work best. “Each preset is developed with a specific type of hearing loss in mind. Once a preset has been selected, there is opportunity to further adjust the setting to the severity of the hearing loss,” Lecluyse said.

The Future of Hearing Aid Technology

While BioAid is not the first hearing aid app developed for the iPhone, Clark said it is unique because of its novel approach to solving individual hearing problems. He added that the core BioAid algorithm is not limited to implementation on a mobile phone.  

"In the future, we think there is the possibility that hearing aid dispensers will send people out with the equivalent of a mobile phone so they can discover the best settings that can then be used in a miniature hearing aid,” Lecluyse said.

Wearable wrist phones and tiny devices worn behind the ear may also reach consumers in the near future.

“With technology evolving so quickly, we think that mobile phone technology will play an ever growing role in healthcare,” said Lecluyse. “Moreover, the technology in general, and BioAid in particular, has the potential to help countless people on low incomes who might not have access to healthcare or could not afford a hearing aid.”

According to a new study by market research firm GigaOM Pro, “the global market for clothing and accessories with embedded health-monitoring gadgets, such as heart rate monitors and running speed sensors, is expected to grow to 170 million devices by 2017.”

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