The earbuds can be offered as hearing aids and include an in-ear thermometer and posture alert
It’s unclear whether Apple is developing new hearing-aid features specific to the AirPods or wants to market the earbuds’ existing hearing-improvement features as hearing aids. The AirPods Pro, Apple’s top-end earbuds, already offer features to improve hearing, including a “conversation boost” launched last week, which increases the volume and clarity of people in front of the wearer .
The proposed AirPods features aren’t expected until next year and may never be rolled out to consumers or the timing may change, cautioned people familiar with the company’s plans.
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment.
According to documents reviewed by the Journal, Apple is already developing prototypes for AirPods to take wearers’ body temperatures from inside their ears. The thermometer will be the second Apple may add to its devices, which may include a new wrist temperature-sensor Apple may include in next year’s version of the Apple Watch, the Journal previously reported.
As for ergonomics, the AirPods will lean on motion sensors in the earbuds and alert wearers about slouching and correcting their posture, according to documents and a person familiar with the idea.
Introducing AirPods as hearing aids could significantly expand their reach. Experts say that millions of people suffer from deafness, many of whom have less severe impairment and do not want to be treated.
Expected to be rolled out by the US Food and Drug Administration next year, the new rules will allow the sale of a new class of inexpensive hearing aids directly to consumers to treat mild to moderate hearing loss.
The Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins estimates that approximately 28 million Americans suffer from mild hearing loss, yet only 5% use a hearing aid. Another 12 million suffer from moderate hearing loss, although only 37% of this group use hearing aids.
Dr. Nicholas Reid, an audiologist at Johns Hopkins, said the prospect of Apple introducing AirPods as an over-the-counter hearing aid in the future would be a potential game-changer. Apple’s ubiquitous earbuds can break the old-fashioned stigma attached to traditional hearing aids, which often prevents people from wearing them, and will cost far less than traditional hearing aids, he said.
AirPods may not be suitable for some hearing loss sufferers as they do not yet have full day battery life. In addition, Apple has been defeated in the hearing-aid market by consumer electronics rival Bose, which sells FDA-approved hearing aids that consumers can customize themselves.
AirPods dominate the global Bluetooth headset market, generating $12.8 billion in revenue in 2020, research firm Strategy Analytics estimates — five times the figure for No. 2 player Bose.
Experts say the array of sensors in the devices, including microphones, an amplifier and a sophisticated processor, means the AirPods Pro already has much of the technology needed to help sufferers of mild or moderate hearing loss.
The hearing aid market is dominated by a handful of companies, and hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars. Experts say that cheap “personal sound amplification products” are available in stores, but their quality is inconsistent.
AirPods cannot be marketed as hearing aids today because of federal regulations that date back decades when many hearing aids were unsafe or ineffective. Those restrictions require the equipment to be sold through licensed hearing specialists who tune the hearing aids to the wearer.
The FDA is working to meet safety and effectiveness regulations required by a 2017 law for a new class of over-the-counter hearing aids that consumers can tune themselves. The rules are expected to allow companies such as Apple, Bose and Samsung to market cheaper hearing aids.
Rolf Winkler at [email protected]