Royal National Institute for the Deaf Hear Wear

Hear Wear aims to destigmatise the hearing aid market.

People throughout the world adorn themselves in different ways to express who they are. Glasses in particular have become a key tool in helping to define our personality both to ourselves & to those around us. They have also managed to cross the boundary from a ‘medical’ culture to a consumer one, thus enhancing the user’s ability to express himself or herself. Wearable ‘ear’ technology is becoming more accepted through technological advances in the telecoms and music sectors. It is no longer un-common to see people wearing hands free mobile earpieces, bluetooth and MP3 players on their ears, as well as their clothes.

This has presented an opportunity to integrate new telecoms technology such as bluetooth/mp3/hands-free into ‘hearing aids’ of the future, both for leisure/quality of life and hearing performance purposes. Furthermore, by creating an ambiguity between telecoms and hearing product types this also allows us to reduce the need to hide or disguise future hearing aids to respond to the stigma of disability.

Products positioned behind the ear are still symbolic of hearing aid disability and stigma. We propose to use the growing acceptance of telecom ear wear products to express a future hearing aid by wearing it on the ear, and creating an ambiguity as to its origin… functional, musical, telecom, jewelry etc.

By locating the product in front of the ear it also places the microphone in the most appropriate functional position to best mimic normal hearing, and allows standard ‘in-ear’ product components to be both used and hidden from view.

Unfortunately, telecom product semantics are defined by a very narrow target market, which ignores gender and age differentiation. Furthermore, the selling proposition is currently one of new function, so there is no commercial need to develop alternative visual cultures to help sell the products. Disguising hearing aids to look like telecom products, which seems to be a current commercial strategy, quickly fails when you realize that hearing loss demographics stretches beyond fashionable urban professionals.

The material & stylistic cultures associated with headwear are in fact rich and varied. Sport, jewelry, fashion, eyewear etc. the opportunities to appropriate these cultures are plentiful and would allow a much more enjoyable and democratic future hearing aid culture to develop.

To establish a product culture, which is sympathetic to humanity’s vast product range, we propose to establish a neutral & universal product core based around a circular form, which responds to everyone’s shape, size and hair in a similar way. The product then becomes a vessel for self-expression from neutral, to technical, to spectacle, to customized.

The product combines a technical inner core with a decorative outer ring. The interchangeable outer ring allows the product to be customised by the user to reflect their personality using colour, shape & material

There is a significant part of the population that suffers enough hearing loss to warrant an aid but refuse to wear one because of the existing negative associations. This proposal, which allies itself to an accessory culture more than a medical one, will also draw in this sector of the community.

It would of course be possible for a single user to own various product personalities to suit different daily functions; work, pleasure, sport etc.

The product is built around a standard set out of technical parts. The product can be spec’d up or down to include hearing technology as well as listening technology (Hands-free, bluetooth, MP3) depending on cost and customer wishes.

Just like spectacles, the outer housing is then specified to match his/her taste/personality. In the same way as spectacles, the product would be purchased/supplied by high street outlets such as opticians/chemists. The mix between medical and visual that exists in opticians is a perfect fit with this potential future hearing aid culture. The customer could either have a full test on site, or take a prescription from their ‘health provider’ to the outlet of their choice. By making the new product ambiguous between technology, jewelry etc, it may also be sold to non hearing loss customers. This broader market would encourage both fashion and sports brands to design their own range of casings (like spectacles) and high street outlets to stock the products and operate the service. Significantly, the entire product and service culture would be de-stigmatised. Core suppliers such as the NHS could still supply a basic product range to suit a basic price point.

We believe that personal product customisation would also suit the product model. A customisable cover would be sold alongside the product types. The cover may simply be covered with fabric in a similar fashion to traditional fabric buttons. Other customisation would surely lead on from there, and would allow users such as children and young adults to take a personal stake in how they represent themselves through the product.