A Wired article on the Future of Hearing exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has gotten the attention of my newly-married friend, Keith Robinson. My good friend Shana has been to the museum and reported back with similar ideas: why not use these advanced technologies, originally designed for deaf and hard of hearing people, to benefit people with normal hearing in noisy situations?
This is, of course, what the field of accessibility does: pushing the leading edge of technology to the point that its benefits are felt by everyone. It’s been this way for years. Today, we have people with near-perfect vision getting eagle-eye vision with surgery. ATMs and coin-sorting machines talk to us. Optical character recognition is passÃ© by now, and discrete voice recognition is a common feature on phone systems. Women with toddlers in strollers use curb cuts and handicap toilets with impunity.
So it will be with hearing. The Walkman, and later the iPod and Bluetooth headsets, made it socially acceptable to have something stuck in your ears all day long. From an interpersonal perspective, that’s the hard part. If all that is now cool, then all manner of hearing enhancements are possible. It offers hearing that changes by situation. I’ve used my noise-canceling headphones to have a pleasant conversation with a stranger on a plane before. Why not put on an earphone that will let me converse with someone more clearly at a loud party? Or use multiple technologies originally designed for accessibility purposes to take that one step further, and have that device translate a foreign-language speaker’s words in real time?
The next logical step with these new auditory technologies is to reduce the overall cost to those who most need it, so that a hard of hearing person doesn’t have to choose between the primitive $500 hearing aids that are covered by insurance and amplify everything in the spectrum equally, or the $3000 ones that are small, use digital signal processing to bring out the right sounds for the situation, and are, you know, useful.
This new-found social acceptance also helps to destigmatize people with a need for hearing aids. The Wired article states that fewer than one in four Britons who need a hearing aid actually wear one. By making hearing technology fashionable, these people can not only demand something more aesthetically pleasing, but can demand more from their vendors at a lower cost as an advantage of economies of scale. One can already buy hearing aids that double as Bluetooth headsets for their mobile phone.
But millions of people have discovered the true joy of the iPod: being able to isolate oneself in stores, parks and on the subway. Changing headphone colors from black to white changed everyone’s perception of the average music listener in public. They’ve gone from passive, interruptible nobodys to active listeners who have put the world on pause. This is the inverse of situational hearing: it’s situational deafness. Whatever the social implications of that deafness may be, it is clearly something that makes my life easier when I’m out in public, amidst the noise and haste.