If the accessories and beauty sectors prove one thing, it’s that consumers are willing to spend on things worn around their faces.
According to Research and Markets, the global eyewear market pulled in $109 billion last year, and it’s expected to break $167 billion by 2023. Over the same five years, Orbis Research pegs that the worldwide cosmetics industry will catapult to more than $805 billion.
So why, then, are hearing devices so fashion-challenged?
Signia, a leading hearing aid-maker formerly known as Siemens, aims to change all that with a new model that looks as good as it sounds. On Monday, it revealed its new Styletto, a sleek little unit almost looks more like an earring or a cool mobile tech accessory than a hearing aid.
The company’s research and innovation team builds its own processors and selectively chooses features that matter to its target audience — like a slim form factor, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, IP68 rating for water resistance, remote settings adjustments, and a novel wireless technology that allows a smartphone app to control the devices using sonic tones instead of battery-sucking Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Its battery life of up to 19 hours does require daily charging, but considering the wee power cells packed into the tiny units, it’s impressive.
“The battery capacity is good for a 19-hour day,” said Dr. Eric Branda, Signia’s director of product management. “There’s also a portable charger for it, so they can keep it on the go. It has enough to charge it three times before it itself needs to be charged.” The devices also feature fast-charging capabilities that can top up in 30 minutes, if the full three-hour charge is too inconvenient.
But its biggest feature is style.
“We really wanted to turn hearing on its ear,” punned Debra Ludgate, senior director of marketing and communications. The brand recognizes that hearing aids often languish in a drawer or gather dust, because they read more medical equipment than fashion accessory.
A few sobering facts put the scenario in urgent context: Living with hearing impediments can be an isolating experience, which can contribute to depression and other conditions. Research also suggests that hearing loss can factor into cognitive decline, as the human brain grows unaccustomed to receiving certain signals.
And it doesn’t just affect the social security set. According to 2015 figures from the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk for developing hearing loss, thanks to cranked up headphones and blaring live music venues and festivals.
Across all ages, the group estimates that today, as many as 466 million people live with disabling hearing loss. The Centers for Disease Control pegs roughly a quarter of people ages 20 to 69 with some sort of hearing deficit.
But in a scenario where early detection and support matters, people who could benefit from hearing amplification won’t wear the devices.
“You see people with earbuds hanging out of their ears, with big Beats headphones,” Ludgate said. “Some people still have those Bluetooth devices. But you figure, why are they not wearing hearing aids? A lot of it has to do with the stigma.
“[We wanted to] get this to a younger person who could really benefit by maintaining activity and being social,” she added. “Because so many people say, ‘No, I don’t really want to go to the party. I don’t want to go to the bar’ because they can’t hear.”
Granted, Signia is not the first hearing aid manufacturer to try to add some style to the mix. But its fashion push seems notable for a few key reasons: Like the retail sector, the landscape for the hearing industry is going through an evolution. Last year’s passing of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act put OTC hearing aids more in reach, as the devices will no longer require screening and prescriptions from an audiologist.
Meanwhile, a major surge in hearing-related technologies are bubbling up, thanks to “smart bud” companies like Nuheara, Bragi and others. They hope to build on the wearable movement with a new class of gadgets called “hearables” — essentially souped up wireless earbuds that offer extra features that can quantify fitness data, add extra sound effects to real world listening or even give some directional amplification boosts.
Perhaps, most importantly, for the fashion sector, Signia is open to working with designers and fashion companies.
In that way, the market could be witnessing the first stages of a transformation. Just as fashion has made its claim on eyeglasses — with brands from Dolce & Gabbana, Coach, Gucci and many others — so too could it extend its territory to the ear.
Could Signia become the Luxottica of the hearing device world? It’s possible. Certainly, there’s urgent demand for someone to help the industry banish the stigma and turn the tech into fashion fare.