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Georgia Tech researchers develop $1 hearing aid

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed an ultra-low-cost hearing aid, for which all the components cost in total less than $1. Designed to be worn by people with age-related hearing loss, the technology provides much of the functionality of conventional hearing aids, but at a tiny fraction of the price. The device may represent a lifeline for hundreds of millions of people worldwide who need a hearing aid but can’t afford one.

Age-related hearing loss is very common, and it can be isolating for older people. “The ability to hear makes a critical quality-of-life difference, especially to older people who may have less access to social relationships,” said Vinaya Manchaiah, a researcher involved in developing the new device. “Hearing has a direct impact on how we feel and how we behave. For older adults, losing the ability to hear can result in a quicker and larger cognitive decline.”

While losing your hearing can be a huge blow, it can be particularly bad when you can’t afford to buy a hearing aid, which can cost as much as $5,000 for a pair in the United States. In many parts of the world, people simply don’t have the funds to purchase standard hearing aids.

“The challenge we set for ourselves was to build a minimalist hearing aid, determine how good it would be and ask how useful it would be to the millions of people who could use it,” said M. Saad Bhamla, another researcher involved in the study. “The need is obvious because conventional hearing aids cost a lot and only a fraction of those who need them have access.”

The low-cost hearing aid developed by the research team has been assembled using open-source parts and a 3D printed case, which all help to keep costs down. The device is specifically designed for older adults who tend to experience hearing loss at higher frequencies. This means that the prototype doesn’t need to account for various types of hearing loss, and therefore doesn’t require the same type of sophisticated technology used in advanced hearing aids.

The new device uses electrical filters rather than the expensive digital signal processors present in conventional hearing aids. “Taking a standard such as linear gain response and shaping it using filters dramatically reduces the cost and the effort required for programming,” said Soham Sinha, a third researcher involved in the study.

The team is planning to build a smaller version of their device, and hope to test it clinically. “We have shown that it is possible to build a hearing aid for less than the price of a cup of coffee,” said Bhamla. “This is a first step, a platform technology, and we’ve shown that low cost doesn’t have to mean low quality.”