A well-known manufacturer of hearing aids in North America, Starkey is committed to supplying high-quality hearing solutions to people with hearing loss. Starkey hearing aids, mobile applications, and accessories offer hearing and health monitoring solutions that support improved mental and physical health while helping customers maintain an active lifestyle.

Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Jeff Solum from Starkey about the impact Bluetooth® Audio Sharing will have and how it could enhance the lives of those with hearing loss.

Q&A with Jeff Solum from Starkey

What led to your participation in the LE Audio effort?

I serve as vice-chair of the Hearing Aid Working Group, and I am a member of the Core Specification and Generic Audio Working Groups. I was inspired to include audio in Bluetooth® Low Energy (LE) to standardize true wireless audio delivery and audio sharing features while reducing power consumption on hearing aids. Having a standard for assistive listening that can be adopted worldwide is an exciting prospect.

What are some of the challenges of existing telecoil/loop systems that Bluetooth Audio Sharing will address? 

“With Bluetooth® Audio Sharing, we expect to see the emergence of many more venues supporting assistive listening.”

Deployment is currently expensive and labor intensive. Plus, the energy required to make a good loop system is high when compared with an equivalent Bluetooth® LE system.

Venues that want to provide assistive listening have been scared off by the price of installation. Also, non-teleloop assistive listening was not convenient for the user. It usually meant picking up an FM or infrared receiver at the venue since they are not standardized.

With Bluetooth Audio Sharing, we expect to see the emergence of many more venues supporting assistive listening, and the cost to equip such venues will be much more affordable. The audio quality will also be much better, and it will be so much easier to deploy, ensuring assistive listening will become more widely available.

Bluetooth Audio Sharing holds the promise to satisfy many use cases, from large-area listening in public venues to personal smartphones broadcasting music to multiple speakers or earbuds. Which use case are you most excited about and why?

Since I work in the hearing industry, it’s the broadcast sharing for assistive listening that is most exciting. But I also can’t wait for all the currently deployed silent TVs to start broadcasting audio in places like health clubs, airports, bars, and restaurants. I am not a fan of reading closed captions when trying to eat, drink, or exercise.

Certainly, public assistive listening will become ubiquitous, and I am sure many countries will mandate this feature in public places, such as classrooms, government buildings, and public transportation. Beyond those settings, you will see Bluetooth Audio Sharing in sports venues, theaters, museums, places of worship, and anywhere news and entertainment TVs are deployed. Private settings in the home, hotels, cars, planes, bank tellers, shops, etc., will deploy this too.

“Certainly, for those with hearing loss, it [Bluetooth® Audio Sharing] will be a game changer.”

How will the new capabilities of Bluetooth Audio Sharing impact our lives?

Certainly, for those with hearing loss, it will be a game changer. It is quite difficult in noisy or reverberant acoustic environments for folks with hearing loss.

There is just no way to equip all the possible places offering live audio with telecoil systems.  But being able to place an RF audio gateway based on the new Bluetooth® LE standard just about anywhere there is a power source and an audio source is a complete game changer for people with hearing loss.

Having direct access to audio will be a huge benefit, but not just for those with hearing loss. Soon, you will be able to listen to your music player and also receive other types of audio from other devices without having to always be connected to those devices. 

When might we expect to see Bluetooth Audio Sharing solutions and capabilities hitting the market?

My hope is soon. I would estimate the break-out year for this technology will be 2024, when most smartphone and computer platforms will have adopted the technology. Assistive listening will probably gain major market acceptance sometime after that.

Do you plan to have products and solutions with Bluetooth LE Audio and Bluetooth Audio Sharing capabilities?  

Oh yes, the hearing industry has been driving toward this goal since 2014. I predict hearing aids will be hardware ready by 2023.

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