According to the National Council on Aging, over 40 million adults in the United States experience some degree of hearing loss; this is over 15% of the population of people over the age of 18. Many of these people have not yet pursued hearing aids or cochlear implants, while others are long-term, experienced users of technology. Regardless of the type or degree of hearing loss, public spaces are one of the most challenging places to hear due to the background noise, acoustics, and often distance from the target speaker or signal. But what if there was a way for all people to hear better in public spaces? Enter: Auracast Bluetooth.
What is Auracast Bluetooth technology?
Most people are familiar with Bluetooth technology, which enables wireless streaming from a device such as a phone, computer, or television to ear-level devices such as headphones. Within the past few years, Bluetooth technology has been incorporated into hearing aids and cochlear implants, as well. Most often, Bluetooth is streaming on an individual basis so that people can stream music and media to their ears privately. For many years, Bluetooth was limited to one device: a phone could stream a podcast to my headphones but not to my husband’s headphones at the same time.
Bluetooth technology has continued to evolve and expand, and Auracast is one of the more recent advancements in Bluetooth technology. It allows audio to be streamed to an unlimited number of headphones, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and speakers within a given area.
There are several use cases for this type of technology. The first example is a safety announcement. Imagine being in an airport, and there is an announcement about an emergency evacuation. There is a broadcast over the loudspeakers, but the acoustics are poor, and people in the airport only catch bits and pieces of the announcement, thus creating even more noise and panic. But if the announcement could be delivered calmly and clearly to everyone’s individual devices? Much more effective. Then you would know that it is actually a drill and only in Terminal 3. Effective communication is the key to keeping order.
On a less urgent level, Auracast Bluetooth could also be used voluntarily for listening to a news or sports broadcast in a public space like a restaurant or simply watching a movie at the same time as your partner on an iPad with your own listening devices. If you have used Bluetooth technology in the past, you know that the signal is not influenced by background noise or distance from the sound source (assuming you are in the general Bluetooth range, which is around 100 meters).
What if I don’t have Bluetooth hearing aids?
If your hearing aids do not have integrated Bluetooth technology in them, they likely have a telecoil (sometimes shorted to “t-coil”) built into them. This is relatively old technology that involves placing an induction loop inside hearing aids, enabling them to pick up audio input without interference. Many public spaces, such as churches and lecture halls, are “looped,” meaning that any audio from a target speaker will be transmitted directly to hearing aids or cochlear implants that are placed into a telecoil setting. Even grocery store checkouts and taxi cabs in certain cities are looped. Without even realizing it, you may have interacted with several looped spaces; they are labeled with this universal symbol:
It is unlikely that this technology will disappear simply because there is no reason to remove the induction loops, but increasingly, more hearing devices are becoming Bluetooth compatible, and the people using them are more accustomed to Bluetooth. The Auracast Bluetooth technology is also an example of something where a system designed to assist those with hearing loss is actually universally helpful. Did you know that this is how texting originated? We have our hearing-impaired friends to thank for iMessage and WhatsApp.
Can I use this technology now?
Maybe. It will probably take a few years for public spaces to adopt Auracast Bluetooth technology, though they will only need to purchase one transmitter for their space. An estimated 61 million venues are expected to pursue Auracast Bluetooth technology for their space.
Your personal listening devices, whether they be hearing aids, cochlear implants, or traditional headphones, also need to have the Auracast Bluetooth chip inside. According to TechRadar, you should check the spec sheet for Bluetooth 5.2, which will indicate that the device is probably Auracast-ready (Scarrott, 2023).
As you might imagine, hearing aids and cochlear implants will take longer than conventional headphones due to the regulations involved with the FDA. That said, the ReSound Nexia has been announced as the first Auracast Bluetooth-ready hearing aid. This is noteworthy, particularly because ReSound was also the first to market with a Made for iPhone hearing aid. Hearing aid manufacturers tend to release new product lines every 18-24 months, so if Auracast Bluetooth technology is something you are interested in, you might factor that into your decision of manufacturer and when you are due for new hearing aids.
When your hearing aids and your chosen venue are both Auracast Bluetooth compatible, joining the broadcast network will be as simple as joining a WiFi network. These spaces will have the option to search for a broadcast manually or scan a QR code to join automatically. Other venues may also have a tapping function similar to the way you can tap to pay with Apple Pay.
Auracast Bluetooth technology has the potential to be utilized by millions of people with and without hearing loss worldwide in a variety of contexts. Bluetooth technology continues to shift and evolve to help people hear audio clearly in situations where privacy, noise interference, and/or distance would otherwise inhibit them from doing so effectively. Auracast Bluetooth technology is the future of hearing and audio sharing.
Erin Edwards received her Doctor of Audiology degree from Towson University in 2015 and her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University in 2022. She has worked with patients of all ages in a variety of settings and has a specific interest in cochlear implants, the relationship of hearing loss and dementia, and interdisciplinary healthcare.