Locally developed hearing aid cuts through the noise — and masks — with help of AI

From people being father away from each other because of social distancing, to mask-wearing taking away the ability to read lips, the pandemic has created extra challenges for people who have difficulty hearing.

Add in other factors like plexiglass at businesses, hearing experts say, and it can become nearly impossible for people who are hard of hearing to understand what’s being said to them. Those same experts unintentionally created technology for a hearing aid that can help overcome those challenges.

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Eden Prairie-based Starkey rolled out its Evolv AI hearing aids in August and has learned how well the devices can help people hear during the pandemic.

The “AI” stands for artificial intelligence. According to Starkey, the hearing aid is constantly adjusting with the AI technology, with up to “55 million personalized adjustments every hour.”

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” Dr. Dave Fabry, chief innovation officer with Starkey, said about the line of Evolv AI hearing aids. “We had no idea that we were developing it for something that would become such a part of our lives now two years later.”

By either double-tapping the hearing aid or initiating it through a smartphone app, people engage “Edge Mode,” which directs the hearing aid to focus in on speech and drown out some of the background noise.

“My patients started all saying, ‘You told me to use [Edge Mode] in a noisy listening environment. But I found that when I’m communicating with someone who’s wearing a mask, I hear them so much clearer,’” Fabry said.

The hearing aid also allows people to listen to music through them, take phone calls, track physical activity and will send an alert to designated emergency contacts if the user falls down.

“It makes a world of difference,” said Heidi Wilson, who was recently fitted with a pair of Evolv AI hearing aids.

“One of my philosophies being in my 70s is that I want to be vitally alive, and being able to hear is such a huge part of that,” Wilson added.

Wilson said she recently ran into trouble hearing a Walmart employee who was wearing a mask and stationed behind a sheet of plexiglass — until she activated Edge Mode.

“I did the double-tap, and then I could hear her,” Wilson said.

“It’s just a great journey to learn more about them and to be able to live my life,” she added. “I’ve had hip replacements, eye surgery, all those things as you get older and all you do is keep adjusting, but if you keep adjusting, you get to keep living.”

If you think you’d benefit from getting your hearing checked, Starkey offers an online test.